The last thing active-duty service members need to be concerned about is how they’re going to pay for an attorney if they’re fighting for custody of a child, or their home is foreclosed.

Congress is now following a path set in recent years by law schools, law firms and the American Bar Association, which have recognized the growing imperative to provide military men and women with free legal aid when needed.

The U.S. Senate this week is expected to vote on a measure that would help fund programs that provide pro bono legal services to active military personnel. The amendment was introduced by sens. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to authorize the Department of Defense to allocate part of its budget for programs that connect troops with pro bono legal representation.

“The men and women in our armed forces face many stresses abroad, but we cannot overlook the stresses they face at home,” Kohl said in a statement. “Too often, our troops are unable to get the help they need for legal problems ranging from bankruptcy to child custody disputes. Fortunately, there is an abundance of pro bono lawyers willing to help them at no cost.”

The amendment would allow the Defense Department to designate up to $500,000 of its $184 billion fiscal year 2011 operation and maintenance budget for programs similar to those set up by the ABA and the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Michigan.

Troops generally have access to legal advice from officers who are part of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. But most JAG officers are unable to represent clients in civil court because they either aren’t a member of the state bar or the work falls beyond their scope of legal expertise. JAG officers then seek out local attorneys who can take on their client’s case. But for service members pulling in meager salaries, legal expenses can be cost prohibitive. When faced with the option of debt, many times personnel will abandon their right to argue their claims in court.

“Our focus is on trying to make sure that military members have access to legal assistance,” said David Ehrhart, the chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Assistance for Military Personnel.

The ABA started the Military Pro Bono Project in 2008. The program helps service members address civil issues such as foreclosure, child custody or divorce. During the past three years, one part-time attorney has assigned more than 450 cases in 41 states. The ABA estimates that $1.8 million in billable hours have been donated by attorneys nationwide. Right now, 1,400 attorneys have signed up with the project to volunteer their services. Ehrhart said that with the increased funding provided by the Kohl/Graham amendment, programs such as the ABA’s would be able to hire more staff to increase the number of referrals.

“My experience is that anytime when you have a legal issue that is overwhelming to you, it then becomes overwhelming to your family,” Ehrhart said. “We want to provide an avenue for them to solve the problem.”

The Department of Defense declined to comment on the bill. “As a policy, we don’t comment on proposed legislation,” said Cynthia Smith, DoD spokeswoman.

At Cooley, Heather Spielmaker heads the Service to Soldiers: Legal Assistance Referral Program. Since the program started in April 2007, 350 cases have been referred to 180 attorneys throughout Michigan and 75 in Florida. In addition, law students have volunteered their time to work alongside JAG officers to help produce wills and powers of attorney for departing service members. Spielmaker said the program is popular among students, with some 350 students vying for the volunteer positions.

“It is the most popular pro bono program at the law school,” Spielmaker said. “It’s a way they can use their expertise to give back to the troops.”

Spielmaker said that, if the amendment is passed, it would help expand programs and protect taxpayers’ investment in military service members. The Cooley program helps troops ranked E-5 — the equivalent of sergeant in the Army — or lower while the ABA program covers one rank higher at E-6 (equivalent to an Army staff sergeant). Spielmaker said the law school invests about $10,000 annually in the program.

Spielmaker said that the Defense Department’s proposed appropriation of $500,000 was a generous start. “With the economy being what it is and budget strains being what they are, it’s probably not a great time to ask for a bigger consideration from the Department of Defense,” she said. “It will encourage the people who are selecting programs to look really closely at how efficient the programs are when choosing which to fund.

“When you talk about a small portion of the operation fund that goes to programs that are already successful, it’s a win-win,” Spielmaker said. “A little money can go a long way when you talk about volunteer efforts.”

Matthew Huisman can be reached at mhuisman@alm.com.