Congress Seeks to Change Civil War-Era Law

Soldiers who survived the Civil War often fared less well with dishonest lawyers who cheated them out of pension money. Congress is now trying to do something about the backlash, lasting 140 years, that has barred veterans from hiring attorneys to help them with benefit claims.

Bills introduced in both the House and Senate would lift the ban on veterans paying attorneys to represent them during the lengthy administrative process of filing a benefits claim with the Veterans Affairs Department.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., sponsor of the Senate bill with Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said he understood that some people still resist the idea of lawyers making money off veterans. "But the bureaucracy of 2006 is a maze," he said. "Our veterans need legal assistance."

"I suppose that some would still warn that lawyers are not to be trusted," Craig said. "But the reality is that the laws are complex and I want veterans to have the option" of hiring a lawyer.

When Congress awarded pensions to veterans after the Civil War, some unscrupulous lawyers succeeded in bilking clients out of much of the money they had coming to them. In reaction, Congress imposed a limit, first $5 and then $10, on what lawyers could receive for assisting a veteran.

That lasted until 1988, when Congress removed the $10 ceiling and created an independent Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Veterans can seek legal representation when their case reaches the court, but are still prohibited from paying a lawyer for services until the VA's board of appeals makes a decision on their claim, a process that often takes years.

"This has been widely understood to be unfair for many, many years," said Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military law at American University's Washington College of Law. "It's a museum piece that should have been gotten rid of a long time ago." He said he knew of "no other situation where litigants can't pay a reasonable fee to their attorneys."

One reason Congress has not acted is that the nation's 24 million veterans do have access to free counseling from the major veterans service organizations.

Steve Smithson, deputy director for claims services for the American Legion, said his group has accredited representatives for every VA regional office. Most are not lawyers, he said, but the VA system "is a very unique animal in administrative law" and attorneys would not necessarily be more effective than the Legion's experienced agents in dealing with it.

The Legion has not taken a position on the Senate and House bills, he said, but "we want to make sure the veteran is protected from being taken advantage of."

Sponsors of the House bill — Reps. Lane Evans of Illinois, the top Democrat on the Veterans' Affairs Committee, and Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., a committee member — said they expected that the service organizations would continue to represent most claimants. "Nonetheless, we believe that in this day and age, veterans should not be prohibited from hiring an attorney if they choose to do so."

The Senate bill is S. 2694, the House bill H.R. 4914.