August 10, 2009

State funds Veterans’ Legal Assistance Program

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The Veterans’ Legal Assistance Program at the Southern Illinois University School of Law is receiving another year of funding to assist veterans in their disability claim appeals.

John F. Lynn, the law school’s assistant dean for administration, recently received word from the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs that the program will receive $56,650 this year. The funding will cover travel costs, materials for second- and third-year law school students and case managers, and a seminar hosted at the law school.

Lynn said the program was much more successful in its first year than he anticipated -- both in student participation and case results. The program’s focus is providing pro bono legal services to veterans who cannot afford or do not have access to legal representation in appealing service-connected disability claims.

“The Veterans’ Legal Assistance Program is a perfect fit for a law school committed to public service,” said Frank G. Houdek, interim dean of the SIU School of Law. “Because of VLAP, our students have another opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills they will need as practicing lawyers while simultaneously contributing to the public good. It is clear to me that students feel good about their participation in VLAP, not just because of the practical experience they receive, but also because it allows them to help members of the community for whom they have great respect and admiration.”

Since its inception in August 2008 through July 31, the law school program accepted 69 cases and has about 20 active cases. Two of the resolved cases resulted in a total of $1 million in service-connected disability claims involving emergency medical treatment received by veterans. Another case involved reinstatement of a World War II veteran’s non-service connected pension.

Lynn estimates the program received approximately 200 inquiries, of which 69 had legal basis for an appeal. Other inquiries were quickly resolved through paperwork, or there was no legal basis for appeal.

Thirty law school students worked as case managers last year and 20 returning students expressed interest for this year, Lynn said.

Lynn said he also believed that many of the initial cases might not yet be finished, but that students found ways to “streamline the process to work within the VA system and we received a number of decisions within 90 days to six months.”

There are a number of other cases awaiting decisions or final examinations, Lynn said.

“We are getting good results back on recent veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.

There are two cases pending before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, and another claim expected to reach the Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Claims -- the highest veterans court.

“In the sense of getting results, I’m really pleased,” he said. “The student work has been tremendous. Their research and writing has gone beyond what I expected and their approach to cases has been great.”

The program’s office is a “model legal office” that is all electronic. There are no paper files.

“We certainly want to build on the types of claims that we have been able to pursue,” Lynn said.

Noting that at least 10 percent of the University’s student population is comprised of veterans, Lynn hopes to make students, and area veterans, more aware of the program’s offerings and assistance. Many of the referrals in the first year came through the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Lynn is also hoping the program can formally transition into a Veterans’ Benefits Advocacy Clinic within the law school’s legal clinic. If so, Lynn would remain VLAP director, and students would be able to earn academic credit for their research, writing and advocacy. While the proposal still awaits consideration and approval by the appropriate law school committees and the faculty, the clinic course could begin as early as the spring 2010 semester.

“It won’t change the pro bono legal assistance that we are offering to veterans,” he said. “It will give students the opportunity to earn academic credit for their work.”

The Veterans Cash Lottery, a $2 scratch-off lottery game started by the Illinois Lottery in February 2006, funds the program. One hundred percent of the proceeds support Illinois veterans through the Illinois Veterans’ Assistance Trust Fund.

More information on the program is available by contacting Lynn at 618/536-7711 or at

Meanwhile, the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs will open its satellite office on campus later this month.

“We also want to work with IDVA to offer a kind of one-stop source of information and assistance on campus,” he said. “By co-locating the IDVA office with the VLAP office we really believe we can offer that.”

The IDVA assists veterans in filing initial claims for state and federal benefits, including an array of compensation, educational, employment and real estate benefits available to veterans and their families.

The service officer who regularly works out of the state regional office building in Marion will be on campus the first and third Tuesdays of each month, beginning Aug. 18, said Earl M. White, supervisor of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs Southern Division.

Office hours will be 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Kaplan Hall, which is across from the Hiram H. Lesar Law Building. The VLAP program and satellite office will share a common telephone number (618/536-8323) and fax number (618/536-8461).