Austin Business Journal | By James Jeffrey
A plan to address ongoing funding shortfalls in Texas' legal aid system was announced Wednesday at the Capitol.
Lawmakers joined representatives from the legal services in calling for the Legislature to restore general revenue funding for legal aid to the 2012-13 budget level of $17.5 million. Meanwhile, two bills have been filed to raise the cap on the amount of money raised through civil penalties and civil restitution that can be dedicated to legal aid for indigent Texans.
Those pushing for greater funding argue that it makes economic sense, citing an economic impact study done
by The Perryman Group and commissioned by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.
The study concluded that Texas’ legal aid delivery system generates an estimated gain in business activity of
more than $722 million in spending, almost $347 million in goods and services produced, and 4,528 jobs. Every
dollar spent in Texas for indigent civil legal services results in more than $7 in overall economic gains, according
to the study.
“Ensuring Texans have access to justice allows them to be self-sufficient and ultimately lessens the need for
taxpayer support,” said Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, the court’s liaison for access to justice
The number of low-income Texans who need free civil legal services has risen amid a continued rise in poverty
and a slow national economic recovery. More than 5.7 million Texans qualify for legal aid, and Texas' poverty
rate in 2011 was 17.4 percent, according to the Texas Access to Justice Foundation. Legal aid organizations
help more than 100,000 Texas families each year, and demand is five times greater.
Interest on lawyers’ trust accounts has been a significant funding source for legal aid services in Texas
previously, although funds have plummeted from $20 million in 2007 to a projected $4.4 million for 2012.
Currently, the House and Senate budget bills include $13 million for legal aid in the Texas Supreme Court
State Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, have filed companion
bills, Senate Bill 635 and House Bill 1445, respectively, to increase the annual cap on legal aid funds recovered
by the Attorney General from $10 million to $50 million. The average amount received tends to range from $1
million to $2 million, according to the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, and an increase in the cap would
allow for any windfalls.