RELEASE: Governor Newsom Signs AB 558 - Pro Bono Legal Services for Active Military Members now Law

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

SACRAMENTO – In an effort to address the legal services gap for active duty military, Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, Chair of the Assembly Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review, authored Assembly Bill 558, which requires the California State Bar to coordinate civil legal services for active duty service members and their families who otherwise cannot afford them.

California is home to nearly 155,000 stationed active duty service members with 70,000 spouses and more than 1.7 million veterans. Service members and their families have access to military legal assistance attorneys to receive advice and assistance in certain situations, such as wills and powers of attorney, limited family law and simple contractual disputes. However, they must generally obtain their own counsel to represent them in court.

“Now Californians serving our Country will not be distracted by concerns about the cost of legal services,” stated Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D–Laguna Beach). “Active duty military and their families are making the greatest sacrifice for our country, and now they’ll have access to free legal services.”

AB 558 builds off current law, AB 360 (Muratsuchi, 2017), which requires the California State Bar to coordinate pro bono civil legal assistance for veterans and their families. The State Bar Veterans Legal Services survey, as required by AB 360, included questions to find information about legal assistance available to active duty military members. Programs offering legal aid to veterans and active service duty members report that the largest area of unmet legal need statewide is housing, followed by family law, VA benefits, consumer protection and employment.

AB 558 moved swiftly through the Legislative process, receiving unanimous support in both houses. It is supported by the AMVETS-Department of California, California Association of County Veterans Service Officers, Military Officers Association of America - California Council of Chapters, Monterey Bay Defense Alliance, San Diego Military Advisory Council, U.S. Department of Defense and Veterans Alliance of Orange County.

What Others are Saying:

Nick Berardino of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County: “The Veterans Alliance of Orange County (VALOR) strongly supports AB 558 because the military community has been vastly underserved. There is an immediate need to ensure that their right to legal services is protected.”

Kelli Douglas of the Department of Defense State Liaison Office: “Service members and their families have limited access to legal assistance attorneys to receive advice and assistance in certain situations, such as handling wills, powers of attorney, simple family law issues and contractual disputes. However, they must generally obtain their own counsel to handle more complex legal actions and to represent them in court in such areas as civil liability, citizenship, immigration, special needs educational concerns and additional areas of family law. In most cases, this would be cost-prohibitive for the 60% of military families that are in the first five enlisted pay grades. Connecting service members and families to organizations providing pro bono legal aid and representation in court would fill a much-needed gap."

Lorraine Plass, 3rd Vice Commander for Legislation for AMVETS-Department of California: “The young men and women who have volunteered to serve our country in the military face many of the same legal complications in life that civilians do such as divorce, traffic accidents, lease problems, inheritance, etc.  However, these service members must also cope with deployment to a war zone, transfer of duty station, and travel for training. When being transferred, they must also transfer their home of record, arrange for schools for the kids, find a house, and the spouse must also change their place of civilian employment. Today’s service members are operating in an increasingly complicated military and civilian world and should not have to forgo proper legal representation because of financial constraints. AB 558 is a step in the right direction and we applaud Assemblywoman Petrie-Norris for her attention to this issue.”

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