Looking in the Rearview Mirror, Reaching Forward to the Future

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

UPDATE  |  By Trish McAllister, TAJC Executive Director

As another year so quickly approaches, we take a moment to reflect on the many ways the Commission, its partners, and so many of you, our loyal supporters, have strengthened the pathways to the courts for low-income Texans.  

For years, legal aid organizations reported struggles with the inconsistent manner in which Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 145, which governs affidavits of indigency, was applied throughout the state.  The Commission suggested revisions to the rule to the Supreme Court of Texas.  The Court amended the rule to clarify who is eligible to have their court costs waived and to increase a uniform application in all courts across Texas. The rule became effective September 1.

To help address the burgeoning population of self-represented litigants in court, the Commission proposed that the Court amend the Code of Judicial Conduct to clarify what judges can and cannot do when a self-represented litigant appears in their courtroom. The Commission also suggested that the Court provide guidance to clerks and court personnel by adopting policies on what services may and may not be offered to assist court patrons who are attempting to achieve fair and efficient resolution of their cases.

In collaboration with the Supreme Court Advisory Committee, the Commission proposed changes to Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 183, which governs the appointment of interpreters.  The Commission also submitted a report to the Court on language access challenges experienced by represented and unrepresented low-income individuals in Texas. 

Partnering with the State Bar Pro Bono Workgroup, the Commission drafted a report on the current Emeritus Pro Bono Attorney Program of the State Bar, which proposed revisions to Chapter 81 of the Texas Government Code and Article XIII of the State Bar Rules to improve the program and increase the number of attorneys who can provide pro bono in Texas. The State Bar Board of Directors approved support of a bill making changes to Chapter 81 to allow the Texas Supreme Court to promulgate rules allowing inactive members to provide pro bono legal services and will be reviewing proposed changes to Article XIII next year.  If approved, the rule will be sent to the Court for approval. 

Fourteen Champion of Justice Law Firms that raised the highest amount or had the highest percent participation were applauded this year for contributing $170,000 to the Justice for All Campaign.  The Champion of Justice Society, comprised of donors who wish to demonstrate their strong support of access to justice in Texas each year, contributed more than $160,000.  All in all, more than 9,200 attorneys made a contribution to the 2016 Justice for All Campaign, raising $1.3 million to support access to justice in Texas. These financial resources help sustain legal services providers and allow them to provide critically needed civil legal services to our Texas friends and neighbors.

Participation in the Commission’s Pro Bono Spring Break program grew 25 percent and its Access to Justice Internship program grew by 10 percent. Success of both programs can be attributed to outstanding support from our fine Texas law schools and a mutual desire to cultivate a deep understanding of the need for civil legal services for low-income Texans and foster a culture of pro bono in future attorneys. 

This past spring, the Commission launched a “Poverty Simulation” initially intended to help Texas law students gain a better understanding of how a low-income family navigates life. Participants assume the roles of family members and community members such as employers, bankers, police, judges, and grocers and are tasked with providing for basic necessities and shelter for one “month,” consisting of four 15-minute “weeks.” “Family members” must work, pay bills, handle child care, and manage problems that arise, such as unemployment, eviction, or domestic violence. Through role playing, the simulation dispels stereotypes and misconceptions about families living below the poverty line and shows how a lack of legal representation can directly trigger the cycle of poverty and repeatedly reinforce it. The simulation has gained wide recognition and will be presented at law firms, legal aid organizations, and local bar associations in the coming year.

We must certainly celebrate the successes and accomplishments made this year.  We give thanks to the strong support and hard work of our partners and advocates. Without them, these achievements wouldn’t have been possible. And we remain mindful that challenges persist. The need for improving access to the courts has not diminished, but we’re making progress.

The executive director of the Texas Access to Justice Commission, Trish McAllister has over 20 years of experience in the access to justice field. She served as the executive director of Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas, a nonprofit pro bono legal service provider. She also worked at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, where she was a regional team leader for the family law division handling domestic violence cases and then acting branch manager.