UPDATE | By Harry M. Reasoner, Chair
It has long been clear that this will be a very difficult legislative session. The Commission is focused on informing legislators about the critical funding and non-funding legislative related needs of the access to justice community.
The annual ATJ “New Member” Breakfast was held on January 26 for first- and second-term representatives. During the breakfast, Texas Supreme Court Justice Jeff Brown, Representative Sarah Davis, TAJC Commissioner Harriet Miers, TAJC Executive Director Trish McAllister, and Texas Access to Justice Foundation Executive Director Betty Balli Torres provided information to attendees about the Texas civil legal aid system and detailed how members can support efforts to increase access to justice for low-income Texans.
Funding Related Efforts
The Commission supports the Texas Supreme Court’s Legislative Appropriations Request for Basic Civil Legal Services, as well as appropriations for the veterans’ legal aid and legal aid for survivors of sexual assault (LASSA). During the interim, Speaker Joe Straus and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick asked all state agencies to reduce their budget requests by 4 percent. The Court requests $16.86 million for Basic Civil Legal Services, $2.88 million for veterans’ legal aid, and $9.6 million for LASSA. The Court’s request in exceptional item #3 would restore this 4 percent cut to these important funds for low-income Texans. The Court’s budget will pass through the general state budget bill, either Senate Bill 1 by Senator Jane Nelson or House Bill 1 by Representative John Zerwas.
Non-Funding Related Efforts
The Commission is also committed to advancing policy that will make the court system easier to navigate and is supporting several bills this session.
Alternatives to Probate
The Commission has been working to eliminate the need for low-income Texans to probate the most common assets they are likely to own upon their death. Most low-income people have very few assets—some money in a bank account, a car, and possibly a home—but the value of these assets often exceeds the cost of probate to properly pass them to their loved ones. Last session, the Commission supported two enacted bills that made it feasible for people to pass their money and their home outside probate. This session, the Commission is supporting legislation to pass a vehicle outside probate and to clarify language in the transfer on death deed.
• Senate Bill 869 by Senator Joan Huffman/House Bill 1753 by Representative Jessica Farrar would create a vehicle transfer on death, similar to a transfer on death deed. The vehicle transfer on death would allow owners to transfer their vehicle to a beneficiary upon their death without going through probate. If passed, the three most important assets a low-income individual is most likely to own will be able to pass to a beneficiary without the expense of probate.
• An amendment to the transfer on death deed under Texas Estates Code Sec. 114 is needed to clarify that the anti-lapse statute applies in all beneficiary situations. Since the TODD was passed in 2015, the transfer on death deed has been a popular tool for passing one’s home out of probate. This amendment will ensure that single and multiple beneficiaries are treated the same.
The Commission is committed to making it more feasible for people who cannot afford an attorney to represent themselves in court. Sadly, there are not nearly enough legal aid or pro bono attorneys to help everyone in serious need of legal assistance, and self-help is their only recourse.
Last session, the Commission's efforts helped enact two bills that created plain language forms for pro se litigants. This session, the Commission supports legislation that will make it easier for county law libraries to create self-help centers.
• Senate Bill 937 by Senator Judith Zaffirini/House Bill 1021 by Representatives John Smithee and Jessica Farrar amends Sections 323.021 and 323.023 of the Local Government Code to allow counties to partner together to establish a law library and self-help center and to clarify that counties can use law library filing fees to offset law library self-help center expenses.
Increasing Pro Bono Attorneys
To address the shortage of attorneys available to help low-income Texans, the Commission supports legislation that will increase the pool of attorneys who can perform pro bono work.
• Senate Bill 435 by Senator José Rodriguez/House Bill 1020 by Representatives Smithee and Farrar amends Chapter 81.053(a) of the State Bar Act to allow the Texas Supreme Court to promulgate rules permitting inactive members to practice law solely for the provision of pro bono legal services.
Home ownership remains a bedrock of our Nation’s promise of opportunity and prosperity to all Americans. To accomplish this dream, many low-income Texans seek non-traditional financing, such as owner-financing, to purchase a home. Unfortunately, these financing practices can expose Texans to a higher risk of financial exploitation and a potential loss of their home. The Commission supports efforts to ensure that low-income Texans understand the terms of the financing agreement and the status of payments.
• Senate Bill 830 by Senator Rodriguez/House Bill 993 by Representative Armando Walle would require non-federally related lenders to provide annual statements to borrowers with basic information about the status of their loan, including how much is owed, how much has been paid, and the breakdown of the principal and interest.
We urge you to join in our efforts by calling your Texas Senator and Representative to voice your support of these critical bills. Visit our website to find more information about each bill or to locate contact information for your legislative members. http://www.texasatj.org/state
Thank you for your consideration.
Harry M. Reasoner is the chair of the Texas Access to Justice Commission and a partner at Vinson & Elkins in Houston, Texas. His principal area of practice is complex civil litigation, including antitrust and securities litigation. He is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, the International Society of Barristers, and the American Bar Foundation.