LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) - U.S. Marine Corps veteran Bill West was able to get an answer to a legal question he hadn’t been able to afford to ask since 2009.
And he said it’s all thanks to a few University of Idaho law students who have organized a free monthly legal aid clinic in Lewiston to assist veterans with various civil issues.
West, 67, of Kamiah, served during the Vietnam War from 1967 to 1971 and is one of about 10 veterans who have sought help at the clinics, which started in September. He said his legal issue dated back to 2009, and while he had a feeling in his gut it might be too late to do anything, he was happy to have it confirmed.
“It was nice to find out that my time had expired and I didn’t have to think about it anymore,” he said.
The clinic is the product of nearly two years of work by UI law students Heather Norton and Dennis Cygan, who are co-presidents of the law school’s Veteran Law Association. Their goal is to provide on-the-spot, free legal assistance to veterans unable to afford an attorney regarding a number of civil issues, including divorces, wills, child custody, bankruptcy or landlord-tenant matters.
Veterans are asked to fill out an intake form when they arrive to determine what their legal need is and collect some personal information, as well as a memorandum of understanding explaining that there may be some limitations to the services that can be provided at the clinic. They then meet with a licensed attorney who provides them with directions on how to resolve their issue.
Each clinic is 6 to 8 p.m. on the first Wednesday of the month in the Brammer Building, 1225 Idaho St., in Lewiston. The next clinic is Nov. 4.
Cygan, 33, a second-year law student, said the idea for the clinic first came about in fall 2013 and was initially planned for Boise. He and Norton later learned that Boise already had a network of legal services for veterans, including one of four veteran treatment courts in Idaho that addressed both criminal and civil matters.
They decided to switch gears at that point, focusing instead on bringing the same type of network to northern Idaho. Lewiston was chosen as the clinic’s location because it also has a veterans treatment court and it made sense to have the two coincide, Cygan said.
“It was a starting place,” Cygan said. “We didn’t know where to start.”
Their efforts gained a little more momentum after they attended an Idaho Military Legal Alliance conference in January in Boise, where they learned more about how the Boise clinic was started and operates. Cygan said that was when they figured out what they needed to do, including find a licensed attorney to provide the legal advice since students are unable to do so.
He and Norton, 39, met with lawyers in Coeur d’Alene, Moscow and Lewiston to find a supervising attorney for the clinic, but were repeatedly shot down until Moscow attorney Bob Wakefield contacted them in June. Wakefield, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel (affectionately called Col. Bob), had previously turned them down, but ultimately agreed to be their supervisor.
“He’s passionate about it,” Cygan said. “He wants to help people in need.”
Norton and Cygan began meeting with Wakefield and Sunil Ramalingam, a former Lewiston attorney, who is the director of externships for the College of Law, to organize the clinic. They spent July and August searching for a location and were able to secure the Nez Perce County Prosecutor’s Office for the first clinic in September. The Brammer Building became available later and is reserved through July.
“We needed to get something going,” Cygan said.
The first clinic only had two people, but Norton said they figured that was a success because at least someone showed up. The second had nine veterans come through for help, including West, and Norton and Cygan are hopeful the number will hold steady at about six each time.
Norton, a third-year law student graduating in December, said the reason she and Cygan are co-presidents is so the clinic can continue now that it’s been started. They both have strong veteran connections - Cygan served in the U.S. Air Force from 2000 to 2006 and Norton’s husband is a disabled veteran who did two tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. They also understand the importance of providing legal aid to veterans.
“The whole point of it is to give veterans options,” Cygan said.
Norton said she lives with the challenges veterans face every day and tries to use her experience to relate to the people who come in for their help. There is a big gap in what veterans have access to for legal services, she said, and the clinic is a way to support them after their service.
West echoed Norton’s sentiments, saying he knows a lot of other veterans in similar situations as him. They have money coming in, he said, but it’s typically not enough to cover the cost of even one hour with an attorney.
“To me, it shows that extra little bit of gratitude for service time,” West said. “And trust me, that means a lot.”
Information from: Lewiston Tribune, https://www.lmtribune.com
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