UPDATE | By Trish McAllister, Executive Director
Decades from now, it’s very likely that Americans will still reflect on the first year of the new millennium as one of those rare historical pivots that changes a country forever.
It was the year of an attack on Americans that would lead us into two wars, the year NASA started sending robots to Mars, and the year that Apple released the first iPod.
It’s also the year that the Texas Supreme Court signed the order creating the Texas Access to Justice Commission to serve as the umbrella organization in the state for all efforts to increase access to our civil judicial system and to move ideas into action.
Among the eight directives listed in that order is this one: The Commission “will work to reduce barriers to the justice system by addressing existing and proposed court rules, procedures, and policies that negatively affect access to justice for low-income Texans.”
That kind of big-picture change-making has been in the Commission’s sights for almost 15 years, and our successes during the 84th Legislative Session represent a watershed moment.
Working with judges, lawyers, legal advocates, legislators, their staff and many other very smart people, we built a coalition of support for several changes to the legal system that will help low-income Texans get the justice they’ve always deserved.
- A transfer-on-death deed allowing Texans to pass down their family home without the expense of probate court: Passed.
- A law requiring banks to give customers timely information about payable-on-death accounts so they can more easily choose to pass money remaining in their account upon their death to a named beneficiary without the hassle and cost of probate: Passed.
- Texas Supreme Court forms for pro se litigants in landlord-tenant matters: Passed.
- Texas Supreme Court forms for pro se litigants in certain probate matters: Passed.
- Millions of additional dollars in legal aid funding that will help thousands of additional low-income Texans? Yes.
These laws help ensure that low-income Texans will enjoy the protections in life and death that many other Texans already have.
They mean that more Texans will get help from lawyers and more Texans without lawyers will be able to help themselves.
This year, the Commission has come closer than ever before to realizing the goals set for us by the Texas Supreme Court in 2001.
I’ve read the Supreme Court order creating the Commission too many times to count. I’ve kept a printed copy of it in my office since I took the Commission’s helm four years ago.
It serves me well as a reminder of the distance this organization has traveled since its birth, and forces me to wonder just how far we could still go.
Now that I’ve experienced the willingness of legislators, lawyers and legal aid advocates to collaborate on new ways to reduce barriers to justice, my mind’s eye sees farther and farther ahead.
And I like what I see.
The executive director of the Texas Access to Justice Commission, Trish McAllister has over 20 years of experience in the access to justice field. She served as the executive director of Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas, a nonprofit pro bono legal service provider. She also worked at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, where she was a regional team leader for the family law division handling domestic violence cases and then acting branch manager.