What Does Veterans Law Cover?
Veterans law covers those veterans benefits that are administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) through its adjudication process. This includes disability compensation and pensions, educational benefits, home loans, and medical benefits. The largest component of the system's workload by far involves claims for disability compensation. The essence of a compensation claim is that the veteran has a current disability or has died as a result of an injury or disease that occurred during service. In some cases, the connection—frequently called the "nexus"—is presumed based upon statutory provisions, although in other cases medical evidence is necessary to prove the relationship between the in-service event and the current condition.
The two defining characteristics of the VA adjudication process are: (1) claimants may not pay an attorney to assist them at the beginning of the claims process (although many attorneys and legal service organizations provide assistance for free), and (2) VA has numerous notification and assistance duties with which it must comply to help claimants develop their claims before VA makes a decision on the claimant's application.
Veterans have other special rights and privileges, such as government employment preferences. However, claims under those laws are not filed with VA.
How are Veterans Benefits Claims Adjudicated?
The veterans benefits process involves five levels of review described in further detail in Overview of the Appeal Process for Veterans' Claims by the Congressional Research Service [download .pdf]:
- Claims are initially developed and decided by non-attorney adjudicators at one of 57 VA regional offices (ROs).
- A claim denied by an RO may be appealed to the Board of Veterans' Appeals (BVA) in Washington, DC, where it will be decided de novo by a Board member, sometimes called a Veterans Law Judge. Both the ROs and the BVA are part of VA.
- A claim denied by the BVA may be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC). The CAVC is an Article I court independent of VA. It reviews Board decisions for error with deference to the Board's fact finding. No new evidence may be considered by the CAVC.
- The party that loses at the CAVC (either the claimant or the Secretary) may appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (Federal Circuit). However, the jurisdiction of the Federal Circuit is limited to questions of law. It may not review factual determinations or the application of law to facts.
- Finally, the party that loses at the Federal Circuit may seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, statistically, it is extremely unlikely that the Supreme Court will grant review.
- For a more detailed discussion of the practical realities that drive the system and a look at some statistics on its workloads, see Why So Many Remands?: A Comparative Analysis of Appellate Review by the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, 1 Veterans L. Rev. 113 (2009) [available here].