Harry M. Reasoner 2017-12-20 05:31:46
The 85th Legislature passed several bills that will increase access to justice without requiring additional state funding. Individuals cannot represent themselves in probate court, except in very limited circumstances. Thus, low-income people, who cannot afford an attorney, cannot transfer title properly for a car. For the past two sessions, the Texas Access to Justice Commission has focused on ways for low-income people to transfer assets without need of probate on basic assets. With the enactment of SB 869 regarding vehicles, people can now pass the three assets a low-income Texan is most likely to own—a car, a home, and money in a bank account—to a named beneficiary outside of probate. Self-represented litigants, or SRLs, also need access to legal information and forms to have an opportunity of properly proceeding in court. HB 1021 encourages the creation of law library self-help centers by clarifying that existing law library filing fees can be used to offset self-help center expenses. It also helps smaller counties by allowing them to partner together to create a law library. SRLs frequently arrive at the courthouse seeking information on where to get legal help. SB 1911 requires courts to post information on where SRLs can get it, including local legal aid offices, lawyer referral services, and a self-help website jointly chosen by the Office of Court Administration and the commission. Inactive attorneys, many of whom are temporarily out of the workforce for caregiving purposes but who wish to keep up their skills by performing pro bono, have previously been barred from doing so. The passage of HB 1020 opens up a new pool of 16,000 potential pro bono attorneys by permitting the Texas Supreme Court to create rules that allow inactive lawyers to practice law for the sole purposes of pro bono. Home ownership is a critical component of keeping people out of poverty. Unfortunately, homes are often lost due to a lack of information on loan status. Home sellers who finance five or fewer homes per year—typically owner-financed situations—are currently not required to provide basic information, such as the amount of principal or interest paid during the year to homebuyers. SB 830 would have required the provision of an annual accounting. Although it passed through the Legislature, it was vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott. The commission will revisit the issue next session. The commission’s non-legislative efforts included a proposed change to the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct to clarify what judges can do when an SRL is party to the suit. The commission also suggested two policies on the treatment of court patrons to clarify what court clerks and personnel can and cannot do to assist SRLs. Finally, the commission worked with the Supreme Court Advisory Committee to revise Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 183 regarding interpreters and soon will be working on a sample language access plan for Texas courts to enhance the availability of competent interpreters in proceedings. The commission is delighted to report that the number of legal service providers and law students participating in Pro Bono Spring Break—a program that immerses future lawyers into the civil legal aid arena and provides hands-on experience with people needing legal help—nearly doubled this year. The State Bar of Texas Legal Access Division had a number of successes as well, including the launch of Pro Bono Texas, a website that pro bono attorneys can access for pro bono opportunities, training materials, mentors, free CLEs, and no-cost document production software. The Legal Access Division also launched Texas Legal Answers, a statewide portal where low-income Texans can post their legal questions that are answered by pro bono attorneys. Attendance at the annual Poverty Law Conference, a CLE on substantive poverty law issues, increased by 40 percent. Strong relationships were forged with legislative offices on the non-partisan matter of access to justice, the Supreme Court continued its leadership, and the number of lawyers committing financially to access to justice efforts with their dues payment increased significantly. Substantial strides were made in serving low-income Texans. While much is left to be done, thousands of Texans will benefit by what has been accomplished. 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/2967607/463027/article.html.