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Lawyers volunteer free legal help to state's veterans

Lawyers throughout the state have volunteered to provide pro bono legal assistance to veterans.

The initiative, led by the Connecticut Bar Association, kicked off last week, training about 50 lawyers on how to represent veterans with claims before the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"Veterans have been entitled legally to rights under the VA and they have not been given those rights, not because anybody is withholding them intentionally but because the bureaucracy is such that the average veteran often cannot work their way through," said CBA President Francis Brady.

The lawyers will initially work with veterans who are entitled to compensation, medical treatment or disability benefits from the VA, Brady said. But he does envision those lawyers also helping veterans with civil matters, including domestic issues and evictions, and minor criminal cases.

Laurie Harkness, director of the VA's Errera Community Care Center in West Haven, said veterans' needs are much greater than benefit claims.

Two lawyers who volunteer at the center have given veterans advice and made referrals on child custody and divorce cases, housing issues and wills, and criminal troubles including driving under the influence, breaking and entering and assault. They helped one veteran whose identity was stolen.

The bar association offered to connect some of the volunteer lawyers with veterans at the center.

"The VA can't do it alone and when an organization like the CBA steps forward, it fills a gap in the services so that the veterans' needs are finally getting addressed," Harkness said.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said many veterans have approached his office with legal troubles, but lawyers there cannot represent the veterans individually in court. Blumenthal raised the issue with the bar association.

"These individuals who served and sacrificed for our country should be better served by our legal system," Blumenthal said. "I will be an active and engaged partner in this collective effort, along with other lawyers in my office, and I hope that it will attract a very wide volunteer following."

The Connecticut Bar Association is working with Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut Inc., so that veterans who call the legal aid network can be matched to a volunteer lawyer. The toll-free number is 1-800-453-3320.

Brady said he plans to contact the congressional offices so staff there who work with veterans will make referrals, and to advertise the initiative at Stand Down, an annual event at the State Veterans Home campus in Rocky Hill to give Connecticut veterans access to social outreach services.

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