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Texas Unable to Assist Most Who Qualify for Legal Aid

April 18, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas - Texas lawmakers are considering measures today that would address a chronic shortfall in funding for state legal aid programs. Less than a quarter of those whose low incomes qualify them for legal aid are now able to access the help they need. Past legislatures have addressed the problem with stop-gap funds.

State Sen. Jose Rodríguez (D-El Paso) authored one of the bills, SB 726. He says it's time for a permanent solution.

"Here we are, a country that says we will provide equal access to the courts - to our justice system - to everyone, whether they're wealthy or not. We are not meeting that high ideal when we don't properly fund these services."

Rodríguez' plan would raise around $35 million a year, primarily from fees of $2 to $10 added to the cost of traffic tickets, misdemeanor convictions and court filings.

Opponents say this amounts to a new tax. Rodríguez points out that it's a practical necessity, adding that it would spread the cost among lawbreakers rather than law-abiding citizens.

Some examples of those who stand to benefit from increased legal aid support are low-income veterans pursuing benefits, elderly who have been denied health care and renters fighting improper evictions.

Thirty-nine-year-old Crystal, who lives in East Texas with her three children, says she was lucky to get legal aid, which enabled her to escape a 20-year cycle of family violence.

"I really, truly believe in my heart that without legal aid I would be dead. And my children? I don't know... I don't even want to think what would have happened to them."

She says free attorney services helped her get protection from an alcoholic husband who had repeatedly assaulted her. She credits legal aid for making it possible to rebuild her family, and she now feels secure.

"I was able to get a divorce, get child support and have laws enforced upon him that specifically state he cannot harass or hurt me. And I now have my own place to live."

The bills being debated this week (SB 726, SB 1085, SB 1524, HB 2174 and HB 2481) would also fund indigent criminal defenses. Since poor criminals are constitutionally entitled to free attorneys, counties must pick up the tab when the state comes up short. But with no such mandate in the civil court system, most people who need legal help for non-criminal matters are simply turned away.

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX