Wes Hickman (202-224-5972) or Kevin Bishop (864-250-1417)
-- A bill which would allow veterans to hire lawyers to represent them in their efforts to obtain federal benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been introduced by U.S. Senators Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina).
The legislation (S.2694 - the Veterans’ Choice of Representation Act of 2006), if enacted, would repeal restrictions flowing from a policy born nearly 150 years ago when attending law school was not required to become a lawyer and many practicing law were considered ill trained and unscrupulous.
"I suppose that some would still warn that lawyers are not to be trusted, but the reality is that the laws are complex and I want veterans to have the option of hiring an attorney to help navigate the system, if they choose," said Sen. Craig, who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. "A recent editorial put it this way, ‘If American soldiers are mature and responsible enough to choose to risk their lives for their country, shouldn’t they be considered competent to hire a lawyer?’ I believe the obvious answer to that question is ‘yes,’ Simply put, the current paternalistic restriction is outdated."
Under current law, all 24 million living veterans are prohibited from hiring a lawyer to help them navigate the Veterans Affairs system. It is only after a veteran has spent months and even years exhausting the extensive VA administrative process that the veteran then may retain counsel – a process that often takes 3 or more years to complete.
"This overdue change will significantly improve veterans’ access to the VA and expedite just outcomes," said Sen. Graham, who also serves on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. "In today’s complicated world, legal assistance in navigating the system is more timely than ever. I thank Chairman Craig for his leadership in this effort."
Under the current appeals system, about 85 percent of veterans choose to be represented by Veterans’ Service Organizations or state veterans agency personnel.
"I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that attorneys should be considered necessary in order to obtain VA benefits," Chairman Craig said.
"We must ensure that the system continues to serve veterans in a friendly, non-adversarial manner – regardless of the presence of an attorney or any other representative. I also want to be clear that, although I believe veterans should have the option to hire attorneys, they should not be discouraged in any way from utilizing the valuable free services now provided by many dedicated representatives of veterans’ service organizations."