More state money is needed to provide legal representation for poor

This country has a legal-aid funding crisis. Matters are just as bad, if not worse, in Texas.

Currently, 5.6 million Texans qualify for legal assistance with issues such as domestic violence, foreclosures and health care for the elderly. Yet insufficient state funding makes access to legal representation for the poor almost impossible. Only about 104,000 families receive help each year from a small group of legal aid organizations.

Several bills filed this session — including House Bill 2969 and its companion, Senate Bill 1057 — aim to increase state indigent defense system funding. Access to justice should not be reserved only for those who can afford to pay for legal services. Our state lawmakers should make indigent defense a priority and increase the funding.

Doing so makes moral and common sense. Safeguarding legal representation for low-income Texans would enable those most vulnerable to improve their situation and, in turn, rely less on state and federal tax support.

HB 2969 and SB 1057 are a good start. These bills would expand the Chief Justice Jack Pope Act by expanding the type of cases included in civil penalties recovered by the office of the attorney general. Under current law, basic legal service assistance receives partial funding from penalties received by the office of the attorney general in certain civil cases. The 2013 Pope Act raised the cap on the money that can be used from those funds from $10 million to $50 million per biennium.

Additionally, the Texas Supreme Court wants to focus more money for two specific populations: veterans and sexual assault victims. Currently, there is no designated state money for these groups, which means they must essentially compete for already limited state funds. As it stands, funding for veterans’ legal services comes from the general revenue and private fundraising efforts. And there are no dedicated state dollars or targeted funding for victims of sexual assault. Limited state dollars allocated to the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, the largest state-based funding source for the civil legal aid, are used to help serve the latter group.

For these reasons, the Supreme Court budget request this session includes $4 million for veterans’ funding for civil legal aid and $5 million for sexual assault victims. It is a request this board fully supports. With the additional funding, Texas would handle approximately 4,600 veteran cases and approximately 5,550 to 6,000 sexual assault cases, according to the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.

Veterans and sexual assault victims deserve better access to justice. Texas has the second-largest population of veterans, many of whom return from duty with additional stressors that can be remedied by civil courts, including child custody issues resulting from a divorce that occurred while on assignment.

Similarly, more must also be done to better protect the increasing number of young foster children who fall victim to human trafficking. In 2013, Texas accounted for approximately 10 percent of human trafficking tips received by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline. Research shows that sex traffickers tend to target juvenile runaways and other vulnerable groups, using force, fraud or coercion to compel them into the sex trade. Increased funding could better help vulnerable children, Justice Eva Guzman told us.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees accused criminals the right to an attorney, even if the defendant cannot afford to pay for services. However, the law says nothing about helping the indigent with civil cases.

That means the doors to legal representation access remain closed to the majority of poor people and veterans who need help with medical powers of attorney, guardianship issues, restraining orders on an abusive spouse and contract disputes.

According to Texas Access to Justice Foundation, only one legal aid lawyer is available for approximately every 10,833 Texans who qualify for legal aid. To be eligible for legal assistance in Texas, an individual must earn no more than $14,713 a year; the household income for a family of four cannot exceed $30,313.

The State Bar of Texas does help, not only by funding its own legal services arm, but also by providing staff and funding to the justice commission. In 2013, Texas attorneys provided over 2.3 million hours in free or indirect legal services to the poor, according to the State Bar of Texas Pro Bono Survey. Still, the system can use more volunteer attorneys.

Funding remains the main problem.

Historically, legal aid funding in Texas mostly relied on the interest paid on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA), accounts lawyers are required to maintain to hold their clients’ money. However, with decreasing interest rates, IOLTA revenue has lost more than $99 million since 2007, according to Texas Access to Justice Foundation. This has been the hardest hit to legal-aid nonprofits.

Last session, to help with the loss of funding, state lawmakers appropriated $17.6 million for civil legal aid for the biennium. It was the right move. This session, lawmakers should further increase, if not match, those funding efforts. Despite all the funding efforts, Texas, embarrassingly, ranks 50th in access to legal aid lawyers.

Overall, funding for indigent defense is desperately needed. It is up to state lawmakers to resolve civil justice inequities between those who can afford legal defense and those who can’t. We urge them to step up to the challenge.

Viewpoints: Funding the indigent defense system remains a large problem in Texas.

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