An agreement signed Thursday between West Virginia University and the Louis A. Johnson VA Healthcare System formalized a partnership in which veterans will receive free legal advice from WVU College of Law students.
But, according to College of Law Dean Joyce McConnell, the Veterans Assistance Program, available to around 23,000 veterans in north central West Virginia, is just the beginning.
“We’re the first in the U.S. to offer these services under this kind of agreement,” McConnell said. “We want to bring this to the rest of the country. We want to be a model for law schools and veterans’ health care institutions across the country.”
Representatives from the College of Law, including veteran students, joined with representatives from the Clarksburg-based VA for a brief ceremony Thursday at WVU’s Steptoe and Johnson Courtroom.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity to offer another service for veterans who have served our country,” William Cox, director of the System, said. “The idea was so innovative and creative and it made so much sense.”
Thursday’s signing represented a marriage of ideas and concepts that began three years ago, said Tom Yanni, a third-year law student and veteran of the U.S. Air Force. Yanni was a member of the Veterans Caucus, a group of student-veterans at the law school that offered free outreach, advice and services to fellow veterans. The concept expanded when professor Marjorie McDiarmid formally adopted veterans’ initiatives into a special law clinic, an outgrowth of the general clinic which had supported veterans for years.
The idea of the partnership evolved through discussions with Stephen Butera, regional council for the VA system. In September, the VA issued a directive that allowed hospitals to make space available for services such as legal help. Butera said the partnership will create a one-stop shop for a veteran, who can get a check-up at the hospital and also obtain legal advice.
The Program will be offered to veterans to handle such cases as custody issues, divorce, property issues, Social Security and more.
Yanni said the partnership also supports a recent federal initiative designed to prevent homelessness by connecting eligible veterans with legal services as an alternative to incarceration or other traditional criminal sanctions.
“It’s a great opportunity for students and our potential clients,” McDiarmid said. “The students will learn valuable skills and get a real sense of fulfillment representing people who need and deserve representation. Our clients will receive high quality legal services.”
CONTACT: Tom Yanni
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