Legal Aid Funding Crisis Puts Poor Texans Risk

Monday, February 28, 2011 - 01:00

The Texas Access to Justice Commission and Texas Access to Justice Foundation hosted a news conference on February 17 at the Texas State Capitol to highlight the continued funding crisis in the Texas legal aid system. A comprehensive legislative plan to address the funding crisis was also announced. Preliminary state budget estimates reflect a reduction of 51 percent in funding for legal aid, a decline of $23 million.

The continued rise in poverty due to the recession and historically low interest rates on Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts (IOLTA) continue to increase the strain of available resources for Texans in need of civil legal services.

A decline in IOLTA funds, a significant funding source for legal aid in Texas, has had a major impact on the availability of legal aid services in Texas. The IOLTA revenue for legal aid in 2011-2012 is projected to fall to only $5 million, which will result in $15 million less in available funds compared to 2007 levels. While funding has decreased, the number of Texans in need has increased by more than 600,000 in two years. Currently, 5.7 million Texans qualify for legal aid for help with issues such as benefits for veterans, health care for the elderly, domestic violence and foreclosures.

"The Texas Legislature appropriated $20 million in funds for legal aid during the last session. We are thankful for that appropriation, but the dire economic times have continued, unhappily," Harry M. Reasoner, chairman of the Texas Access to Justice Commission, said. "The recession has increased the number and needs of the poor. We will deny desperately needed legal representation to hundreds of thousands of our citizens unless there is additional funding available."

One legal aid lawyer is available for approximately every 10,838 Texans who qualify. To be eligible for legal aid, an individual must earn no more than $13,613 a year. For a family of four, the household income cannot exceed $27,938.

Representative Pete P. Gallego spoke at the briefing in support of funding for legal aid in Texas. "It is vital that we do everything we can to ensure that all Texans have access to justice."

Several bills will be filed this session that will help address the funding shortfall. Among those proposed is an increase in district court filing fees, creating a dedicated Judicial Access and Improvement Fund, and including a fee for creditors in the mortgage foreclosure process. A proposal to mandate funds generated by consumer protection suits will also be proposed.

Senator Jose Rodriguez filed SB 726, the Judicial Access and Improvement Fund legislation, on February 15. The bill relates to the establishment of the judicial access and improvement account to provide funding for basic civil legal services, indigent defense, and judicial technical support through certain county service fees and court costs imposed to fund the account.

Rep. Elliott Naishtat filed HB 1392 regarding a fee on the transfer of property following a foreclosure sale to fund civil legal services for indigents.