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Monday, December 11, 2006

Catch 22 Eliminated: Vets Finally Able to Call In Heavy Artillery

CINCINNATI (TDB) -- You won't believe this. It is a message from my friend, Barb Cook, and it is about something that definitely needed fixing.

"Until this week, which of the following groups were prohibited by law from hiring a lawyer:

(1) enemy combatants?
(2) illegal immigrants?
(3) child molesters?
(4) military veterans seeking VA benefits?

If you guessed #4, then you know why it is great news that, after 150 years, Congress finally agrees that military veterans are as entitled to legal representation as every other group in the U.S.

Here's the story: In 1862, arguing that it needed to protect military veterans from unscrupulous lawyers, Congress passed a law prohibiting lawyers from charging more than $5 to aid veterans with their claims for disability compensation. In 1864, the fee limit was raised to $10. That fee limit was not raised again and effectively prevented veterans from hiring lawyers to help with their claims. It remained the law until 1988 when Congress created the Veterans Court, first called the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (COVA) and now called the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC).

With that 1988 law, Congress permitted a very small group of military veterans seeking VA benefits to hire lawyers for a reasonable fee, but with a critical limitation. For a military veteran to be allowed to hire a lawyer, he had to have a final decision from the top VA administrative agency, the Board of Veterans's Appeals, within the year before the retainer agreement was signed. At that point, the evidentiary record was closed. Thus, lawyers have usually focused on persuading the court that it should order the Board of Veterans's Appeals to re-decide the case. At that point, the evidentiary record would be re-opened, allowing the veteran, with the lawyer's help, to introduce more evidence and increase the chances of winning the case.

Advocates for veterans have long argued that the prohibition against attorney involvement was wrong because it placed vets at a serious disadvantage. For a long time, only veterans and enemy combatants were prohibited from hiring lawyers but in Hamedi v. Rumsfeld, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this year that even enemy combatants had the right to hire lawyers. This left military veterans seeking VA benefits as the only group in the U.S. who were legally prevented from hiring lawyers to help with their cases.

On Dec. 9, 2006, the Senate passed S. 3421, as amended, a bill recently passed by the House. President George W. Bush is expected to sign the bill. It contains numerous medical and benefit-related provisions, but it also permits military veterans to hire lawyers much earlier in the claims process, while the evidentiary record is still open.

The language of the bill is not yet on the Internet. But knowledgeable sources say that, under the new law, lawyers can become active by analyzing the claim and getting supportive evidence. The bill is to take effect six months after it is signed. It will only apply to future VA claims."

Barb lives in Cincinnati but grew up in Rocky River outside Cleveland. She is a University of Michigan law school grad and she has been extremely active in sticking up for vets -- often as their last chance at getting benefits.

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