Devastating budget cuts could mean even fewer Texans can access basic legal services. With only about 20 percent of Texans in need of basic legal services getting them now, any further drop in funding would hinder an already ailing system.
With a preliminary state budget that cuts legal aid funding in half to $23 million, the Texas Access to Justice Commission and Texas Access to Justice Foundation held a joint press conference today to address the need for a comprehensive legislative plan in response to the crisis. “We will deny desperately needed legal aid to hundreds of thousands of our citizens unless there is additional funding available,” said Harry Reasoner, chairman of the Access to Justice Foundation.
Last legislative session, a one-time appropriation of $20 million was provided to help account for a 73 percent drop in the traditional source of funding from Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA). Meant as a one-time stopgap, no such generosity is expected in this session’s cutthroat environment.
IOLTA works by pooling the interest on lawyers’ trust accounts into an account that is used to provide legal aid to those in need. With the drop to historically low interest rates that accompanied the recession, funding from IOLTA dropped from nearly $20 million in 2007 to around $5 million in 2009 and 2010. This has left a gaping financial hole in an already fragile system.
Over half of the cases receiving legal aid in Texas currently involve domestic abuse. “These people saved my life. I’ve had a shotgun pointed at my face,” said Crystal B., a client of Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse and mother of three. “AVDA helped me get a divorce and get my life back.”
In a legislative session with a $27 billion shortfall, funding is hard to come by, and the state would likely have to raise fees to pay for legal aid. Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, filed a bill proposing a small fee from anyone filing a document of record, such as a marriage certificate. Other bills propose raising revenue through fees on district court filings and transfer of property following a foreclosure.
“Nothing is more important in my view in what we do here than to ensure we live up to our philosophical principles,” said Rodriguez at the conference. “One of those being that we all have equal justice under the law.”
James Sales, Chair Emeritus of TAJC, said that when he took the chairmanship in 2004 there were only 3.8 million poor people. Now there are 5.7 million Texans who qualify for legal aid help. “Justice is the most hollow of promises unless a person has access to the justice system,” said Sales.