Texas Access to Justice Foundation
Texas Access to Justice Commission and Texas Access to Justice Foundation Announce Possible Funding Remedies
AUSTIN, Texas—The Texas Access to Justice Commission and Texas Access to Justice Foundation hosted a news conference today at the Texas State Capitol to emphasize the ongoing funding crisis in the Texas legal aid system. At the conference, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht and legislators announced legislative plans to address the funding crisis.
Texas Legal Aid Funding
The continued high levels of poverty in our state, combined with a slow recovery of the national economy, has vastly increased the number of low-income Texans in need of free civil legal services. Currently, 5.6 million Texans qualify for legal aid for help with issues such as benefits for veterans, health care for the elderly, domestic violence and foreclosures.
Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) is a significant funding source for legal aid services in Texas, but those funds have decreased significantly due to historically low interest rates. Since 2007, the Texas Access to Justice Foundation has experienced a loss of $99 million due to the declines in funding from IOLTA. This decline in funding harmfully affects legal aid programs throughout the state.
“Helping struggling Texans with civil legal needs not only improves their lives and their families’ lives, it is a boost to the entire state as well,” Justice Hecht said. “Ensuring that Texans have access to justice allows them to be self-sufficient and ultimately lessens the need for taxpayer support.”
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 $14,713 a year. For a family of four, the household income cannot exceed $30,313.
Legislative Remedies Proposed
The following legislative proposals that will help address the funding shortfall were announced at the press conference.
Texas Supreme Court Budget Request for Civil Legal Aid
The baseline budget includes court filing fees, the legal aid fee paid by all lawyers, the pro hac vice fee paid by out-of-state lawyers who file cases in Texas, occasional Attorney General civil penalties as they arrive, Justice for All license plate revenue, and $17.56 million in general appropriations revenue. This general revenue item is vital for civil legal aid organizations to continue their efforts over the biennium to serve the poor needing basic civil legal services in our state.
In addition, the Supreme Court of Texas and the Texas Veterans Commission have partnered in a new initiative called Justice for Veterans. The goal of this partnership is to increase funding for direct legal assistance to veterans and their families and for veterans courts. Exceptional item 6 of the Court’s budget request would provide $4 million over the biennium to fund legal aid, legal clinics or other legal services for veterans and their immediate families.
In 2007, the Texas Legislature passed legislation requiring a $5-per-customer tax on those entering a defined sexually oriented business. Section 102 of the Business and Commerce Code dedicates funding to the Court to be transferred to the Texas Access to Justice Foundation for the purpose of providing victim-related legal services to victims of sexual assault, which may include certain victims of human trafficking. Exceptional Item 7 of the Court’s budget requests that $5 million of these funds be distributed to the Foundation so that they may issue grants to organizations providing those services to this very vulnerable population.
Enhancements to Chief Justice Jack Pope Act
Rep. Senfronia Thompson has filed HB 1079, expanding the Chief Justice Jack Pope Act. In 2013, the Legislature enacted the Chief Justice Jack Pope Act that was signed into law by Governor Perry. The law expanded 2009 legislation that directs the Attorney General to transfer civil penalty funds received from defendants in violation of the Deceptive Trade Practices Act (DTPA) to the Supreme Court to be used for civil legal aid grants. The Pope Act also raised the statutory cap on those transfers from $10 million to $50 million during any biennium.
Rep. Senfronia Thompson noted, "Legal aid provides significant help to women, children, the disabled, and veterans. Oftentimes it means the difference between living in a home or on the streets, being self-sufficient or needing to rely on governmental assistance. HB 1079 is needed to help address the critical funding shortfall in legal aid."
“Helping our veterans and those who are in abusive relationships with legal aid is a non-partisan issue,” added Rep. Sarah Davis. “I'm proud to support a program that helps those who are in most need.”
The proposed expansion would include civil penalties in areas other than the DTPA. Examples of such areas are violations of the Health and Safety Code or violations of environmental and whistle-blower statutes on which the Attorney General of Texas is named party and obtains civil penalties. The bill would not capture funds already designated to other entities under separate statutes. Representatives Sarah Davis, Roberto Alonzo, Kenneth Sheets and Jason Villalba have also signed on to this bill. Representatives Joe Deshotel, Mary Gonzalez, Morgan Meyer and Elliott Naishtat are co-authors.
# # #The Texas Access to Justice Commission was created in 2001 by the Supreme Court of Texas to develop and implement policy initiatives designed to expand access to and enhance the quality of justice in civil legal matters for low-income Texans. The Commission has created several initiatives to increase resources and awareness of legal aid. For more information, please visit www.TexasATJ.org.
The Texas Access to Justice Foundation, created by the Supreme Court of Texas in 1984, is the largest state-based funding source for the provision of civil legal aid in Texas. The organization is committed to the vision that all Texans will have equal access to justice, regardless of their income. The Foundation administers a variety of funding sources, which are earmarked to assist nonprofit organizations in providing legal aid to more than 100,000 Texas families each year. For more information, please visit: www.teajf.org.
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