Texas Bar Journal | By Harry M. Reasoner
A civil justice system that works only for some, fails us all. Justice for all is a fundamental principle upon which our country was founded. The Texas Access to Justice Commission increases fairness in the judicial system for the 5.6 million Texans who qualify for civil legal aid by advocating for systemic change and the expansion of funding for access to justice initiatives.
Efforts to inform Congressional Members on the benefits and need for legal aid funding have brought some improvement. This year, we can celebrate a win for federal LSC funding as Congress passed a budget that included $365 million in LSC funding, a $25 million increase from 2013. Looking ahead to the 84th Session of the Texas Legislature, state funding for legal aid is once again included in the Court’s budget at $17.6 million.
The State Bar of Texas and Texas Access to Justice Commission co-sponsored the annual Champions of Justice Gala benefitting Veterans. 400 people attended the gala to honor the valiant men and women who have made great sacrifices for our country. This year’s event raised more than $348,450. Since the Gala’s inception five years ago, over $1.75 million has been raised to improve access to justice for Texas veterans.
Texas attorneys also showed their support through the Access to Justice Contribution Campaign. Contributions through the State Bar of Texas dues statement increased by 16 percent to help fund Texas legal aid providers. This year more than 8,000 lawyers gave $1,111,300. Recognizing those who give more than the suggested $150, the Champion of Justice Society has grown to 356 members whose contributions provide funding for the equivalent of 3 legal aid staff attorneys.
The Commission continues to monitor abuse of Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 145, which governs affidavits of indigency, and submitted a supplemental report to the Court on our proposed revisions to Rule 145 to document new and continuing misuse of the Rule. Represented pro bono by Vinson & Elkins, the Commission submitted an amicus brief in support of petitioners who were wrongfully assessed court costs even though they had filed affidavits of indigency deemed valid as a matter of law. The case is currently pending before the Texas Supreme Court.
The Limited Scope Representation subcommittee completed a packet of sample documents to help attorneys incorporate limited scope representation into their practices, as well as produced a CLE presentation on LSR business practices.
The Real Estate, Probate and Trust Law Section of the Bar and the Commission are working collaboratively on forms that make it easier for low-income people to access wills and probate in Texas. In April, the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee asked the Commission to report on the impact of probate on low-income Texans proposing some solutions to the problems they face. Following the hearing, an interim work-group was created to address some of the challenges faced by the poor in probate matters. As a result, Representative Farrar will be submitting three bills during the upcoming legislative session to address the issues brought forth by the workgroup.
Focusing on rural communities, the Commission’s Technology Committee has partnered with Texas Young Lawyers Association to bring legal guidance to self-represented litigants in those areas. Focused on divorce cases, the Remote Access Project will connect rural self-represented litigants with urban pro bono attorneys through video-conferencing.
In October, the Commission launched the Law Student Leaders Access to Justice Summit to educate law students about issues that low-income Texans face accessing civil legal services. The summit was recommended by our Law School Advisory Committee, comprised of the deans from each Texas law school, and was made possible with a $20,000 grant from the Texas Bar Foundation. Delegates learned about pro bono opportunities that they can be involved in as students, and what they can do once they are lawyers. Because exposure to pro bono during law school leads to increased pro bono and financial support of civil legal aid upon graduation, we hope that the Summit will inspire a new generation of lawyers committed to creating a better community through their legal skills.
The Commission also remains dedicated to providing training for legal aid attorneys. Through our Pro Bono Spring Break, 66 law students from eight law schools provided pro bono services in six cities at ten different legal aid organizations. In conjunction with the American College of Trial Lawyers, we conducted our tenth annual training for legal aid attorneys where 30 legal aid attorneys were trained in hands-on trial skills.
Progress has been made to increase access to justice for low-income Texans. However, much work remains to be done as 4 out of 5 of those who qualify and are legitimately in need of help have to be turned away because of lack of resources.