Bruce P. Bower 2015-08-25 16:46:37
As the Dallas Morning News stated in an editorial on May 3, 2015, 5.6 million Texans meet the financial eligibility criteria for publicly funded, basic civil legal services in Texas, but legal aid providers are able to serve only 20 percent of persons in need. The article further stated that funding per person for legal aid in Texas is $5.46, a drop from $12.56 per person 20 years ago. In his address to the 84th Texas Legislature on the State of the Judiciary in Texas, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht stated that “funding for legal aid helps provide the infrastructure to connect clients needing services with lawyers willing to help”—making the point that pro bono legal services by attorneys in private practice contribute mightily to the cause of access to justice. The appropriations that are described in this summary reflect approvals by the governor, the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and the attorney general. That is to say, the appropriations would not have occurred if any of those statewide elected officials had been opposed. With leadership by the Texas Supreme Court, the 84th Texas Legislature in a strongly bipartisan manner responded to calls for funding for legal aid. The appropriations made by the Legislature for legal aid are administered pursuant to orders of the Supreme Court. The financial eligibility guidelines are available at teajf.org/grants/admin_forms.aspx. The household income limits for eligibility for legal aid in Texas are typically 125 percent of the federal poverty guideline for the particular size family (except for veterans and victims of crime, for whom income limits are somewhat higher). Thus, a household of two parents and two minor children generally cannot have a total gross income of more than $588 weekly to qualify for state-funded legal aid. There is not a deduction from income for food, clothing, shelter, or medical care. In addition to income limits, households must meet asset limits to receive legal aid provided through funding from the State of Texas. For the 2015-2016 biennium, the Legislature appropriated $17.56 million in general revenue for basic civil legal aid, $10 million for basic civil legal services to victims of sexual assault, and $3 million for basic civil legal services specifically for veterans, in addition to funding for veterans treatment court programs. Also, the Chief Justice Jack Pope Act (Texas Government Code §402.007) was amended to increase the amount of civil penalties collected by the attorney general and not otherwise dedicated, which can be allocated to “the judicial fund for programs approved by the supreme court that provide basic civil legal services to the indigent.” This amendment to the Chief Justice Jack Pope Act resulted from HB 1079. In addition to financial eligibility criteria, all legal services provided with state funding are subject to restrictions on who can be served and what types of basic civil legal matters can be handled. These are available at http://www.teajf.org/grants/docs/2011-12/TAJF%20Funding_Restrictions.pdf. They reflect the focus of the orders of the Texas Supreme Court that basic civil legal services be provided to Texans of very modest means. At a press conference at the Texas Capitol on February 18, a veteran described a typical case handled by legal aid—the adoption of his six-year-old son. A video of this is available at http://www.house.state.tx.us/videoaudio/press-conference/. Members of the Supreme Court and members of the Legislature from both parties participated, as well as former presidents of the State Bar of Texas. All present on the dais were bound by a common thread of humility. As the veteran—a Purple Heart recipient—stated, the object of funding for legal aid is that “former members of the military and other people can still get the legal services they desperately need.” The Texas Access to Justice Foundation’s website (teajf.org) has a list of organizations that receive state funds to provide basic civil legal aid. As Chief Justice Hecht made clear in his address to the Legislature, legal aid programs and attorneys providing volunteer services can work together to provide access to justice. Legal aid programs provide backup to volunteer attorneys and assist with clinics at which private practice lawyers consult with Texans of modest means on a pro bono basis. Members of the bar are encouraged to contact their local legal aid program to learn in more detail about the legal services being provided and opportunities for volunteering. In his address, Chief Justice Hecht mentioned that legal aid offices handle family law matters, domestic violence matters, evictions and foreclosures, and legal matters of the elderly. Members of the bar can inform their local legal aid program regarding local priorities (keeping in mind the restrictions that necessarily attach to the available funds).
Published by State Bar of Texas. View All Articles.
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