A federal judge has given Vietnam veterans a victory by ruling the government was unfairly rigid in determining if more than 31,000 vets qualified for disability benefits for being exposed to Agent Orange.

"This is a major victory with far-reaching implications," said Mary Stout, president of the 35,000-member Vietnam Veterans of America, which sued the Veterans Administration over its handling of Agent Orange claims."The ruling validates what the Vietnam veteran has been saying for years," she said, "that the VA has failed to give Agent Orange victims a fair hearing."

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ruled in a decision made public Monday that the VA adopted an "impermissibly demanding" test to etermine whether veterans qualified for benefits, and said the VA improperly refused to give veterans the benefit of the doubt in meeting the high standard.

Henderson ordered the VA to reconsider the more than 31,000 injury claims using a less stringent test under which the vets would be allowed to use statistical evidence showing a significant correlation between Agent Orange and the diseases they suffer, not proof that the herbicide caused the illness.

The VA failed to grant a single one of the service injury claims filed since 1984 based on exposure to the herbicide and allowed only a small number of claims before that for a rare skin disease, according to lawyers for veterans.

The chemical defoliant, containing Dioxin, was used to clear the jungles of Vietnam in order to deny cover to enemy soldiers. It has been linked to cancerous tumors, liver damage and other debilitating diseases.

Neither the Justice Department nor the VA had an immediate response to the ruling.

"This ruling will refocus public attention on the VA's disgraceful handling of the Agent Orange issue," Stout said. "I am optimistic that Congress will now act quickly to resolve this most painful legacy of the war."

The less stringent standard of showing a "statistical association" between Agent Orange exposure and claimed diseases was recommended by a class action suit filed in 1985 on behalf of veterans and their heirs.