Just before the end of the last session, the 109th Congress passed legislation to lift the longstanding ban against veterans being able to hire lawyers to appeal their benefits cases. The change was advocated by both the Governmental Affairs Office and the American Bar Association.
GAO Director Robert D. Evans wrote in a letter to House members in late September, “Veterans’ cases have become increasingly complex and the Department [of Veterans Affairs] itself has numerous staff lawyers to assist it in the administration of these cases. … [U]ltimately, the decision of whether to hire a lawyer in a particular case should reside with the veterans whose rights are at stake and not be precluded by the government.”
The ABA has supported an end to the ban, adopting policy on the issue during its Midyear Meeting in February 2005. The ABA has pledged to help address the VA backlog by offering training to lawyers, as it has done in other areas such as Social Security claims, and to work closely with veterans’ organizations.
While the congressional language is not a complete repeal of the prohibition, the new law does allow veterans to hire counsel following their first adverse ruling. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs still needs to promulgate further regulations on the definition of who is a qualified agent to represent veterans and lawyers will be required to file fee assignments with the secretary. Finally, the repeal is something of a test run, the secretary is to report back to Congress in three and one-half years on whether to maintain the repeal or reinstate the restrictions. Let’s hope the political winds are still blowing in favor of veterans’ rights in 2010.