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Jacksonville Area Legal Aid launches Veterans Legal Services unit with helpline funded through Florida Department of Veterans Affairs

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Ribbon cutting

Declan Duffy, from the left, division chief for Jacksonville Area Legal Aid’s new Veterans Legal Services unit, cut the ribbon on the unit with JALA CEO Jim Kowalski and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park.

Jacksonville Area Legal Aid recently held a ribbon-cutting for its new Veterans Legal Services unit, which is connected to a new, statewide Florida Veterans Legal Helpline funded through the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs.

“We’re grateful to Rep. Travis Cummings and Sen. Rob Bradley for their support of this initiative, which will provide our state’s veterans the civil legal aid they often need and richly deserve,” said JALA CEO Jim Kowalski.

Studies conducted by the Veterans Administration demonstrate the high rate of legal issues for veterans: five of the top 10 unmet needs for male homeless veterans require civil legal assistance, and for female homeless veterans that figure is four of the top 10.

The Florida Veterans Legal Helpline provides a convenient point of access for Florida veterans for legal issues relating to housing, family law, and child support, drivers license suspensions, disability and veterans’ benefits, expungement, and more.

JALA’s role will be coordinated by Declan Duffy, an Army veteran who served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division from February 2002 to December 2006. After being injured on his second deployment, Duffy received an honorable discharge. He subsequently graduated magna cum laude from the University of North Florida, earned his law degree from Florida Coastal School of Law, and worked as a prosecutor handling misdemeanor and felony cases in Clay and Duval counties.

“I was excited to learn about the position at JALA through a colleague at the State Attorney’s Office,” said Duffy, division chief of JALA’s Veterans Legal Services unit. “I was thrilled when JALA offered me the position, and I look forward to helping the veterans in our community and being a resource for other organizations with the goal of helping veterans.”

The helpline is managed overall by Bay Area Legal Services in Tampa. Duffy is one of three veterans specialist attorneys who will respond to referrals from the helpline, as well as handle civil legal issues on-site and in court. The other two veterans specialist attorneys are posted at Bay Area Legal Services and the Pensacola office of Legal Services of North Florida.

Kowalski said Duffy is ideally suited to address the civil legal needs of veterans.

“As a veteran himself, he well understands the various services available to veterans, how they are designed to work and how to troubleshoot when they don’t work as intended, and as an experienced attorney, he can advise veterans as to a wide range of common civil legal issues they may encounter,” Kowalski said.

Kowalski also pointed out that civil legal aid organizations all across Florida have always served veterans, so the helpline is an additional resource, not a replacement for existing services.

“Our expectation is that the free legal advice callers will receive via the helpline will enable many of them to resolve their legal problems, preserving the limited resources of the state’s civil legal aid programs for those who need legal representation,” said Kowalski, adding JALA is well-positioned to triage those needs and march into court on behalf of area veterans. He said the public interest law firm is already recognized as a leader in consumer and housing litigation.

In addition to staffing the helpline, Duffy is tasked to assist the United Way of Northeast Florida’s Mission United project. Through Mission United, the United Way and its partners help military veterans and their families successfully acclimate back to civilian life by affording them the services and support they need.

Veterans can reach the Florida Veterans Legal Helpline at 1-866-486-6161.

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