They answered the call, now it’s our turn
Editorial by American Bar Association President Linda A. Klein and Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht
They answered the call to serve. They risked their lives in defense of our country and our liberty. Now back home, many of them are struggling. We can help. We must.
More than 1.5 million veterans in the United States live in poverty. An estimated 12 percent of the homeless have served in the U.S. military. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, five of the top ten unmet needs of our veterans involve legal issues such as securing benefits they’ve rightfully earned, avoiding homelessness, and managing child custody issues.
The legal profession has an obligation to help, and it is responding. The American Bar Association recently launched a national effort to mobilize lawyers across the country to serve our nation’s veterans, and Texas attorneys are proud to lead that effort. The State Bar of Texas created Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans in 2010, building on the important work started by Houston lawyers serving veterans.
Texas has the second-highest population of veterans in the nation. One of the greatest challenges veterans face when they come back to the U.S. after deployment is access to the legal help they need. In fact, for many of our veterans, access to legal aid can be a lifeline. Obtaining free legal services can be critical to getting the benefits and support they need for themselves and their families.
This week (November 6-12) we celebrate Texas Veterans Legal Aid Week. Across the state, local bar associations and legal aid organizations are hosting free legal clinics aimed at increasing our veterans’ access to the justice system.
But our commitment to our veterans, and all Texans, continues beyond this week.
In the last legislative session, the Texas legislature appropriated $3 million in funding to legal services for our veterans. That, along with private donations, enabled legal aid organizations in 2015 to provide free legal services to more than 8,000 veterans.
Legal aid provides basic civil legal services to the poor, not only for veterans returning home, but for victims of domestic violence, the elderly facing foreclosure and children in need. The Texas Access to Justice Foundation, created in 1984 to fund civil legal aid in Texas, stands committed to a vision that all Texans deserve equal access to justice, regardless of income.
But legal aid can’t do it alone. Even with government support, Texas legal aid organizations only meet ten percent of the need for legal services among low-income Texans. Thankfully, every year, Texas attorneys donate more than 2 million hours of pro bono work. In fact, since 2010, more than 7,000 private attorneys have donated pro bono services to help more than 23,000 veterans in need.
Through a new initiative launched by the American Bar Association, the number of veterans receiving pro bono legal assistance will continue to increase, and solutions to systemic problems that hinder access to justice for all Americans will be addressed—because the problems that veterans face are the same problems that all Americans face.
Continuing to ensure access to justice for all Texans, especially our veterans, requires a renewed commitment to the promise of equality, regardless of income, in our justice system. With adequate funding for legal aid and a continued dedication to pro bono work from the private bar, we can move closer to our goal of seeing justice for all, not just for those who can afford it.
To our men and women who answered the call to serve, thank you. We owe you more than gratitude. We owe you a commitment to ensuring that our justice system lives up to the ideals for which you fought. Thankfully, Texas attorneys are prepared to answer that call.
In recognition of Texas Veterans Legal Aid Week, clinics offering free legal assistance for veterans are being hosted throughout Texas. To find a clinic in your area, please visit texaslawhelp.org/veterans-portal. To check out what the ABA is doing on veteran issues, check out ambar.org/veterans.
Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht has been a member of the Texas Supreme Court since 1988 and is a U.S. Navy veteran. Linda A. Klein is president of the American Bar Association and the senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz.