Positive signs for growth of legal aid funding

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

UPDATE  |  By Harriet Miers, Legislative Committee Chair

The Texas Access to Justice Commission is pleased that the Supreme Court’s request for $17.56 million of baseline state funding for civil legal aid so far has been well received in the 84th Texas Legislative Session. This is very encouraging, and we are very appreciative of our legislators’ support of this baseline funding.  It will help many poor Texans receive direly needed legal services.

But that’s only the beginning of efforts occurring this session to increase funding for civil legal aid and to reduce the “justice gap” that leaves behind so many low-income Texans.

Advocates from the Texas Access to Justice Commission and Foundation met with 45 legislators and their staff members during Access to Justice Day at the Capitol on Feb. 18, describing the great need for legal services to the poor in our state, and urging them to support several initiatives to boost funding. Their task was made easier by the continued support of Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, Justice Eva Guzman, who serves as the Court’s liaison to the Access to Justice Commission, and other current and former members of the Court..  Chief Justice Hecht’s State of the Judiciary address called on lawmakers to defend legal aid programs that help veterans and low-income Texans struggling to pay for legal services.  His remarks also seemed well received.

Chief Justice Hecht and the rest of the Texas Supreme Court have two specific funding requests for lawmakers’ support over the biennium:

  • $4 million for direct legal assistance to veterans and their families
  • $5 million of legal aid for victims of sexual assault and human trafficking, to be obtained through funds available as a result of legislation levying a tax on certain types of sexually-oriented businesses.

So far, legislators seem to be responding favorably to these requests. The House Appropriations Committee not only adopted the second request, but doubled the amount to $10 million. We are hopeful that Texas senators will prove equally supportive.

Legislators have also shown strong early support for the increased veterans funding. As Chief Justice Hecht said in his address at the Capitol, “our military cannot return from risking their lives in defense of our freedoms and values only to find that the justice system they fought for has left them behind.”

To aid the many other Texans who need help solving financially crippling legal problems, Representative Senfronia Thompson filed House Bill 1079, which could greatly expand funding from the Chief Justice Jack Pope Act. That legislation, passed in 2013, increased the amount of money that could potentially be received from violations of the Deceptive Trade Practices Act from $10 million to $50 million.

Rep. Thompson’s bill would expand the act by including money received for other civil penalties not directed elsewhere by law,  including civil penalties obtained in actions for violations of the Health and Safety Code and environmental and whistleblower statutes. 

The Texas Access to Justice Commission and Foundation will continue asking not just Texas lawmakers for support, but legislators in our nation’s capital for help. Access to Justice Day at the Texas Capitol is behind us, but our participation in the American Bar Association’s annual ABA Days in Washington, D.C., is still to come. The No. 1 legislative priority of the ABA is maintaining and increasing funds to support providing legal services needed by the poor.

This gives us the opportunity to meet congressional leaders in person and ask for an increase of funding for the Legal Services Corporation, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars each year to civil legal aid groups around the country.  LSC has asked Congress to boost its funding from $375 million to $487 million, likely resulting in millions of additional dollars in the coffers of Texas’s three largest legal aid organizations.

If you’d like to get involved in the Commission’s legislative work, please contact Trish McAllister.

In the meantime, please be sure to let your representatives in Texas and in Washington, D.C., know how important our democracy is providing “Justice For All.”

Harriet Miers is a commissioner of the Texas Access to Justice Commission and a partner at Locke Lord LLP with offices in Dallas, Austin, and Washington, D.C. She served in the administration of President George W. Bush from 2001 to2007 as staff secretary, deputy chief of staff, and counsel to the president. She was the first female president of the Dallas Bar Association and of the State Bar of Texas. She received the Sandra Day O’Connor award from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics and Professionalism and the Robert G. Storey Award for Distinguished Achievement from the SMU Dedman School of Law.