Legal (Aid) Plea - Lawmakers Asked to Maintain Funding For Access to Basic Civil Services

Wednesday, February 20, 2013
In The Media

Quorum Report

A bipartisan group of lawmakers joined a Texas Supreme Court justice today to make a plea to the Legislature to at least maintain its funding commitment to a legal aid system beset by increasing demand and an increasingly shaky financial picture. 

Two main sources of money for legal aid - Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts (IOLTA) and the federally funded Legal Services Corporation (LSC) - have plummeted in recent years.

IOLTA revenue has been decimated by persistently low interest rates.  In 2007, this revenue source provided $20.1 million for legal aid services.  It's estimated that by 2012, this revenue source will provide just $4.4 million, or a drop of 75 percent. 

Meanwhile, LSC funding for Texas has nosedived by $12.3 million since 2011, or 18 percent.

The current funding structure "is challenging, to use that euphemism," said Justice Nathan Hecht in an afternoon press conference called by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation (TAJF) to shine a light on the issue.

In recent sessions, state lawmakers have stepped in with general revenue to help make up the gap caused by the drop in IOLTA proceeds.  In 2009, they appropriated $20 million. Last session, that level of support dropped to $17.5 million.

This year, Hecht and others are urging lawmakers to at least maintain the funding status quo.  The base budget calls for $13 million in general revenue for legal aid services, leaving a roughly $4.6 million gap from what the Lege is currently spending.

In addition, a bipartisan group of lawmakers - Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) in the Senate and Reps. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) and Sarah Davis (R-Houston) - are pushing legislation that would allow the Attorney General to distribute more money recovered in civil penalties and civil restitution to legal aid services.

That revenue source is capped at $10 million with the proposed legislation raising that to $50 million. The current cap limited a distribution made from the recent mortgage foreclosure settlement made with banks.

But while this legislation would allow legal aid services to benefit more from a future windfall settlement, this is not a realistic source of long-term funding.  Hecht said that this civil penalties fund accounts historically for about $2 million to $3 million in funds for legal aid services each biennium.

Meanwhile, the legal aid services system is drowning in excess demand.  Roughly 5.7 million Texans qualify for legal aid, which is a catch all term for civil legal assistance to low-income families and individuals, according to the TAJF.

Those helped by legal aid include victims of domestic abuse, the disabled, the poor facing foreclosure and returning veterans in need of legal services.

On hand today for the press conference was Margarita Sanchez, who found in legal aid services the help needed so she wouldn't have to return to an abusive husband.  She ended up in the hospital after repeated abuse culminated in her husband stabbing her.

As she put it today, legal aid services arrived for her just as she found herself homeless, jobless, and injured.  With that aid, she was able to get a divorce and a protective order as well as a reasonable shot at rebuilding her life.

The sobering part is that Hecht said today that legal aid services in Texas, despite current funding coupled with the approximately 2.5 million hours in free or indirect legal services provided by Texas lawyers, meet roughly 1 in 5 of the current need.

Put another way, for every Margarita helped, there are another four who don't get that potentially life-saving aid.

More resources, Hecht said, plays an important role.  He admitted that there's no shortage of vital needs across the state that budget makers are being asked to address.  "But again, the need is very large and we need the resources to help strengthen the delivery of legal aid to Texans," he said.