New study finds Maine veterans have unaddressed civil legal needs

BY RAMONA DU HOUX

June 18th, 2013

Maine’s first veteran legal needs survey, administered by Pine Tree Legal Assistance from September to December 2012, showed that 70 percent of surveyed veterans experienced a legal problem in the past year, but only 16 percent contacted an attorney. A complementary survey revealed that 98 percent of service providers had worked with veteran clients in the past year who demonstrated some type of legal need. These findings bolster the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) National survey findings that 3 out of 10 unmet needs for veterans have legal causes or solutions.

Maine is ranked third nationally in veterans per capita. With one out of nine veterans estimated to be in poverty, this survey’s findings are consistent with previous studies by the Maine Justice Action Group that revealed Mainers in poverty experience 1 to 2 legal problems a year.

The top five needs identified by veterans were problems accessing military benefits, job problems including hiring and payment, debt collection including collections harassment, child visitation, custody or support and getting or keeping social security benefits. Service providers reported similar needs for their clients with the additional concerns of problems with landlords, divorce, and getting and keeping government benefits.

Due to the cuts in funding for legal services agencies over three decades, veterans may be unable to get the full representation they require for a legal matter. A lack of comprehensive legal representation may account for the 84% of veterans surveyed who did not access legal supports in the past year despite reporting a legal concern. This is because there is no constitutionally mandated right to representation in civil or administrative legal matters.

Pine Tree Legal Assistance is a statewide, non-profit legal aid organization, providing high quality, free civil legal assistance to Mainers with low incomes in cases where legal assistance can make a difference in meeting basic human needs or in enforcing basic rights, including access to housing, food, income, safety, education, and healthcare. Last year, nearly 30,000 people benefitted from Pine Tree’s direct legal services and thousands more from trainings and other services.

In an effort to provide information in spite of the limited capacity for full representation, Pine Tree Legal produces easy to understand legal information on state and national laws for veterans, service members and their families at www.ptla.org and statesidelegal.org .

This study was produced in partnership with the Maine VISTA project at the Maine Commission for Community Service. The full legal needs study, “Serving Those Who Served: Understanding the Legal Needs of Maine’s Veteran Community” can be found at www.ptla.org.