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Supreme Court Justices Urge Lege to Restore Legal Aid Funding

June 3, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas - Legal Aid for the poor is, once again, in jeopardy. A measure that would have raised $20 million for the program that provides basic legal services to more than 104,000 low-income Texas families each year was quietly dropped in the final days of the regular legislative session.

Now, members of the Texas Supreme Court are urging lawmakers to restore the money during the current special session. Justice Nathan Hecht says the state's Legal Aid program is essential for people in poverty seeking fairness in civil matters.

"And most importantly, it supports the rule of law, because there's no point in having a legal system that the people that need it can't afford."

Among Legal Aid recipients: veterans pursuing benefits, renters fighting evictions, elderly Texans who have been denied healthcare, victims of natural disasters, and abused spouses in need of restraining orders.

Justice Hecht says many lawyers are willing to help those in need by either donating their services or working for well below their normal rates. Even so, he adds, some funds are required for them to navigate the system. A recent University of North Texas survey found Texas lawyers donate about two million hours each year to civil cases, adds Hecht.

"That's a lot of time. And it's not just the lawyers who need to be addressing legal services for the poor; it's a problem for all of us."

The Texas Supreme Court oversees the disbursement of funds through annual grants to Legal Aid organizations. It's a system that will be difficult to rebuild if it goes unfunded now, says Hecht.

For decades, Legal Aid was largely funded by interest from lawyer trust funds. But after interest rates plummeted, that money has largely dried up. The new plan would be paid for by court fees: $5 on misdemeanors, and $10 on District Court filings. It is fitting that revenues come from within the system, says Hecht.

"People who can use the system - who can afford it - are going be asked to pay really a very small amount to make it possible for people who can't have access to be able to get there."

He notes that even if the Legislature restores funding, about three-quarters of Texans who need and qualify for Legal Aid will be turned away. Hecht and fellow Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson wrote a letter this week to Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) asking that the Legal Aid funding be restored during the current special session.

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX