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Guest Post: Helping Veterans through the Illinois Armed Forces Legal Aid Network

This is a guest post from Zach Zarnow. Zach joined the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation as Program Director in January 2016, taking on the task of developing, monitoring, and evaluating IEJF’s initiative to create a statewide military personnel and veterans’ legal assistance hotline and coordinated network of legal support services. 

Illinois is home to somewhere near 1 million veterans, active duty service members, members of the national guard, and spouses and dependents of the same. Illinois is also home to the most comprehensive statewide network of civil legal service providers dedicated to assisting that population in the country. The Illinois Armed Forces Legal Aid Network (IL-AFLAN) officially launched in November of 2017 and is already providing a wide range of high quality legal services to those who served our country. IL-AFLAN was created by an amendment to the Access to Justice Act, which provides for a $2 filing fee funding mechanism and the creation of the Illinois Access to Civil Justice Council.

In less than a year, IL-AFLAN has provided civil legal services, ranging from brief advice all the way to extended courtroom representation, to well over 2,000 veterans and service members. The network does so via a sophisticated centralized telephone hotline that covers the entire state, along with a network of regional providers. At the moment, within five minutes of calling, a person seeking assistance from IL-AFLAN is speaking with an attorney and on the road to getting their problem solved. Roughly 35% of the time, that hotline attorney can completely solve the caller’s problem over the phone, providing them with advice, instructions, and completed forms and documents. When more than a phone call is needed, the appropriate IL-AFLAN member will receive an electronic referral containing the hotline attorney notes, any relevant documents, and the assurance that the client has already had the benefit of attorney consultation and that a warm handoff is being effectuated.

Why Focus on Veterans?

In advance of launching IL-AFLAN, the seven member Illinois Access to Civil Justice Council conducted a listening tour and needs assessment of Illinois legal aid providers, veteran serving organizations, active duty military installations, and social service providers to determine what legal needs existed, who was already meeting those needs, and where there were gaps. The Council learned that many legal aid organizations were already serving veterans, although most were not doing so purposefully or due to special outreach. The Council was able to inform the legal aid community about the special laws and protections that are specific to veterans and active service members so that those organizations could better serve this population. The Council also used the opportunity to help organizations that were not currently asking about military status to craft language for their intake processes that will allow the community at large to better understand how many veterans they are serving, and what those client’s legal needs look like. Finally, the listening tour confirmed something that the Council members had experienced in their previous work for this population – the veteran community is wary of organizations that rush to make promises without first establishing expertise, capacity, and trust. The Council has accordingly taken steps ensure that those key qualities are a part of IL-AFLAN’s DNA.

Specific to legal services, the needs assessment found that the legal needs facing veterans are mostly the same as any other typical legal aid client. The top areas of demand are family, housing, and consumer law cases. Where veterans differ is with military specific issues, such as discharge upgrade petitions and VA medical benefits appeals, both of which are highly sought services.

Building a Network

The Council used this information to inform a competitive grant cycle to select IL-AFLAN members. Members were chosen for a variety of reasons. Some are legal aid generalists, some have medical legal partnerships with VA facilities, some focus on specific veteran legal needs, like discharge upgrades and VA benefits appeals. Others use innovate service delivery models, such as leveraging large numbers of pro bono volunteers or including masters level social worker students in their intake process to address non-legal, but intertwined needs.

Over the course of this first year, areas of law which have had the highest demand for services are veteran’s benefits, landlord/tenant, and family law (divorce), bearing out the needs assessment. Not far behind are homeownership/real property, child support, and estates. IL-AFLAN services make a huge impact in a client’s life. Many of the legal problems IL-AFLAN attorneys help solve directly tie to economic, family, and housing stability. These services prevent small problems from becoming big problems, and help people move back from the brink of losing a home, their economic livelihood, or family stability.

Moving into the second year of the project, IL-AFLAN is excited to be adding PILI to the existing network. PILI’s decades of experience in fostering a culture of pro bono and public interest lawyering will be an asset to the network, particularly in Central and Southern Illinois, where PILI will be providing pro bono services to veterans and service members as part of the IL-AFLAN network.

If you are interested in learning more about the Illinois Armed Forces Legal Aid Network, please contact Zach Zarnow, Program Director, Illinois Equal Justice Foundation.

Learn more about PILI’s involvement with IL-AFLAN »

This is part of PILI’s guest post series. If you are interested in writing a guest post about a public interest or pro bono case that you’re working on or service in the legal profession in general, contact us.

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