Harry M. Reasoner 2016-12-20 18:05:49
Ideally, every citizen who has a legitimate need for a lawyer but cannot afford to hire one should obtain pro bono representation. The cold reality is we have neither enough lawyers volunteering to do pro bono work nor enough funding for legal aid to make this even remotely possible. Four out of five of those who apply for free legal assistance must be turned away. The overarching goal of the Texas Access to Justice Commission is to create more paths to justice for more Texans. The State Bar of Texas, the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, and the Texas Access to Justice Commission— with leadership from the Texas Supreme Court— have striven to increase legal aid funding and pro bono efforts across the state. Voluntary ATJ contributions through the dues statement increased last year to a record level of $1,323,295. A survey released in 2016 found that in the previous year, Texas lawyers contributed 1.87 million pro bono hours with a value of more than $4.67 billion. The gala sponsored by the bar and the commission has raised over $2 million for civil representation of veterans over the past six years. The 84th Legislature appropriated $3 million for basic civil legal services for veterans over the biennium. The commission is exploring areas that do not require increased funding, such as legislative and rule changes that could simplify legal burdens for those of limited means. At the request of the House Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence Committee, the commission submitted a report in August on how to improve access to the judicial system for self-represented litigants. In October, the commission submitted proposed amendments to Canon 3B(8) of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct to clarify that judges can make reasonable accommodations to ensure all litigants, including the self-represented, have the opportunity to be heard in court. The commission also proposed policies to clarify what clerks and court personnel can and cannot do when interacting with self-represented litigants. As a companion to the Transfer on Death Deed passed last session, the commission is working on legislation to permit people to transfer title to their vehicle on death. Low-income people would be able to transfer their three most important assets—a home, a car, and a bank account—at minimal cost, outside of probate. After the commission documented the troubles low-income litigants had obtaining affidavits of indigency, the Texas Supreme Court revised Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 145 and its counterparts. The court clarified that the issue is whether the party can afford to pay costs and tightened how a Statement of Inability to Afford Payment of Court Costs can be contested. The promulgation of plain language forms in areas of high need for low-income people continues. A basic will form is in the works, as are Small Estate Affidavit Muniment of Title forms. Landlord-tenant forms will be soon to follow. Efforts to increase pro bono work informs everything the commission does. To increase the number of attorneys who can do pro bono, a joint work group of the bar and commission proposed changes to Article XIII of the State Bar Rules and Chapter 81 of the Texas Government Code that would allow inactive attorneys, who may be temporarily out of the workforce, to practice law solely for pro bono purposes. The commission’s endeavors to encourage a culture of pro bono service are wide-ranging. In 2016, Pro Bono Spring Break placed 83 law students in 12 legal aid organizations in 14 cities, and the ATJ Internship Program funded 15 students to work with legal aid across the state. To drive home the importance of pro bono, the ATJ Poverty Simulation launched last year asks participants to walk a month in the shoes of a low-income Texan. Although much remains to be accomplished, it is inspiring and rewarding to see the progress made and what a difference for good our profession can make. HARRY M. REASONER is chair of the Texas Access to Justice Commission and a partner in Vinson & Elkins in Houston. His practice includes appellate law and complex commercial litigation.
Published by State Bar of Texas. View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://mydigimag.rrd.com/article/Texas+Access+to+Justice/2669061/370428/article.html.