It’s with a great deal of gratitude that we look to the many ways the lawmakers of the 84th Texas Legislature made justice a little bit easier to find for the millions of low-income Texans that can’t afford a lawyer.
From increased civil legal aid funding, including additional funds for veterans and sexual assault victims, to cheaper alternatives for Texans trying to pass down their family homes, there’s more than a few ways that the Texas Legislature bridged the justice gap. Many of these measures go into effect September 1, so the time for celebration has arrived.
1. Civil legal aid funding
Lawmakers agreed to provide $17.6 million for civil legal aid over the next two years to help the millions of Texans who qualify for that legal aid, but don’t receive it for lack of available resources. Now many more of them can receive the legal representation that keeps them in their homes, protects them from abusers and helps them obtain desperately needed services.
2. Expansion of Jack Pope Act
In 2013, the legislature expanded the Chief Justice Jack Pope Act to increase the amount of legal aid money that could be received from violations of the Deceptive Trade Practices Act. This year, Representative Senfronia Thompson filed a bill expanding the act again by including money received for other civil penalties and payments recovered by the Texas Attorney General’s Office. This change could result in increased funds for civil legal aid.
3. Sexual assault victims
In its biannual budget, the Texas Supreme Court requested $5 million to help victims of sexual assault and human trafficking with their civil legal needs. Texas legislators felt so strongly about this request that they doubled the requested amount. The money could make a life-changing difference for Texas surviors.
Thanks to another funding request from the Texas Supreme Court, lawmakers also approved $3 million for legal services to veterans. This money, which will be distributed by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, could help hundreds of Texas veterans get the justice that many of them cannot afford, and they, of all people, deserve our help.
5. Probate laws
Three important bills will make it easier for low-income Texans to avoid the often costly process of probate court. The transfer-on-death deed is a way for people to transfer property upon their death to another person. It can be completed without the help of a lawyer and recorded in the county clerk’s office at a total cost of less than $50. A payable-on-death account enables a bank account holder to designate one or more beneficiaries to receive the account funds upon the holder’s death. These accounts are especially beneficial to low-income Texans because many times the money in the decedent’s account is less that what it costs to obtain it through probate. Banks are now required to separate out information about POD accounts from all other account disclosure information and to provide it at the time an account is opened or modified. And finally, a decedent’s heirs will now be able to obtain information about the decedent’s bank account balance, making it easier for them to determine if the estate’s assets can cover the costs of its debts. This information is needed to determine if a small estate affidavit can be filed, which is a less costly way of probating certain estates with total assets of $50,000 or less.
The Legislature also passed two bills by Senator Judith Zaffirini and Representative Senfronia Thompson that direct the direct the Texas Supreme Court to create do-it-yourself forms for certain probate matters, such as a simple will. Forms will also be created for use in landlord-tenant matters. For Texans on the edge of homelessness, these forms could make all the difference.
7. Consumer law
Several important reforms regarding contracts for deed were accomplished that protect both parties in deed transactions. Now, legal title to property under a contract for deed will be conveyed to the buyer at the time the contract is made rather than at the end of the contract period, as had been in the past. It also limits the seller’s ability to enforce certain remedies when the buyer is in default. This will go a long way in evening out the playing field for low-income Texans who lack the ability to purchase a family home through traditional methods.
8. Family law
House Bill 2455 was signed by Governor Abbott on June 16 and went into effect immediately – and for good reason. Family violence cases comprise the majority of civil legal aid cases in Texas, yet state and county agencies report data on these incidents in inconsistent ways. A task force has been created to promote uniformity in data collection and reporting , which could drastically improve the ability to help victims.
The number of Texans with appointed guardians has increase by 60% since 2011 and is expected to continue with the skyrocketing over-65 population. As a result, the legislature improved guardianship laws by creating nine alternatives to full guardianship, ensuring that Texans are cared for while maintaining their independence and dignity. The legislature also established a Guardianship Bill of Rights, to grant a ward all rights granted by the Constitution except where specifically limited by a court order and to ensure that the ward is informed of which rights they are retaining and which ones they are losing.
10. Juvenile justice
Decriminalizing truancy for Texas students needed to happen. In 2013, Texas filed 113,000 Failure to Attend cases, more than double that of all other states combined. The criminal offense of failing to attend school has been replaced with a civil offense of truant conduct and also offers preventative measures that school districts can take to curb unexcused absences and rehabilitative programs for habitual offenders. The new law requires schools to address the underlying issues of truancy, such as homelessness, chronic illness or unidentified special needs.