Carolina Law Launches Veterans Legal Assistance Project to Meet Needs of Military Veterans

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This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Carolina Law. Jessica Marsden, Equal Justice Works fellow who is supervising the project in the UNC School of Law Clinical Programs, meets with a client.

Starting this year, some North Carolina military veterans will have a new option for legal services related to disability compensation and discharge upgrade petitions.

Carolina Law launched its Veterans Legal Assistance Project in January to meet civil needs related to military service. The project will build on pro bono services that students in Carolina Law’s Veterans Advocacy Legal Organization (VALOR) have provided with wills and other needs.

“As a group, veterans in North Carolina, like veterans nationwide, struggle with serious unmet legal needs,” says Jessica Marsden, an Equal Justice Works fellow who is supervising the project. “And UNC law students have been eager for a veterans’ clinic. There is a lot of enthusiasm about providing legal services to folks who have served our country.”

The veterans’ initiative will offer students “hands-on legal experience with more complex cases in a highly supervised setting,” Marsden says.

The project will broaden access to legal services for low-income veterans, particularly those whose discharge status prevents them from receiving veterans’ benefits or finding civilian employment.

“Veterans with other-than-honorable discharges — as well as bad conduct and dishonorable discharges — are generally ineligible for most Veterans Affairs benefits, including disability compensation for service-connected disabilities,” Marsden says. “A less-than-fully-honorable discharge can also be stigmatizing.”

Employers can find out the nature of a veteran’s discharge, and an other-than honorable discharge can be an obstacle to landing work.

Carolina Law will mainly represent veterans who want discharge upgrades through the military boards, part of the Department of Defense.

“If a veteran is successful, the discharge upgrade process can be used to change both the character of service and the narrative reason for discharge,” Marsden says.

For veterans whose discharge upgrade applications are successful, law students will help file benefits applications. Veterans with other legal needs may benefit from the resources of other UNC Law clinics, including the Civil Legal Assistance Clinic and the Consumer Financial Transactions Clinic.

In addition to helping veterans, the project will give law students invaluable experience working with clients, gathering evidence, and preparing briefs and other documents as they represent clients before federal administrative agencies.

“Students may also appear in person before military boards if their clients have the opportunity for a personal hearing. This type of hands-on experience is one of the best ways for law students to develop skills they will need when they graduate and go on to legal practice,” Marsden says.

Marsden is getting referrals from lawyers and organizations that serve veterans, screening prospective clients and gathering records connected with claims. She will do more outreach at veteran’s centers in Greensboro and Fayetteville.

—Jessica Clarke

-February 1, 2017

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