Some Lawmakers Hope to Salvage Dwindling Legal Aid Funding

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Legal services client Margarita Sanchez talks about how legal aid helped her through the court system at the Capitol Wednesday.
Beth Cortez-Neavel
Legal services client Margarita Sanchez talks about how legal aid helped her through the court system at the Capitol Wednesday.

Margarita Sanchez went to San Antonio’s Family Violence Prevention Services in May 2011 seeking shelter from an abusive husband. She had just been released from the hospital after her husband assaulted her.

It wasn’t the first time Sanchez had been threatened by her now ex-husband. He had drowned her dog and forced her to quit her job. She wasn’t allowed to contact family or friends, and she wasn’t allowed to leave the home without him.

“He slapped me against the wall several times and stabbed me,” Sanchez recalled Wednesday at the Capitol, in a plea for lawmakers to fund the sort of legal aid she needed to finally get free.

With help from Family Violence Prevention Services, Sanchez was able to divorce her husband and get a protective order. “I was homeless, jobless and injured,” Sanchez said. “Had I not been given a free attorney I have no idea if I would be here today.”

Julia Rainey Rodriguez, the center’s director of legal services, said that while Sanchez’s story is shocking, it’s not unusual for Texas. “There are many, many more that never walk through the doors of my agency that I never meet and that I have no idea what happened to,” she said.

Rodriguez and Sanchez were joined by state lawmakers and Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht to ask the legislature to refrain from cutting the state’s support for legal aid—money for legal services to help indigent Texans like Sanchez.

We’re in the midst of a funding crisis for legal aid, according to the Texas Access to Justice Foundation. Last session the Legislature gave $17.5 million to civil legal aid, less than it spent in 2009. This session’s House and Senate budget proposals would each shrink that even further, to $13 million.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) and Hecht said they’d like to keep the money at last session’s level.

“We recognize that there are lots of other priorities that the legislature is facing: public schools, health and human services. And we’re in competition with those groups for that money,” Hecht said. “We’re just trying to be reasonable. But the need itself is very real. We can maintain. We would rather do better, but I think that’s going to have to wait on a change in the economy.”

Out of 5.7 million Texans who need to go to court but can’t afford it, the foundation The foundation estimated that only 20 to 25 percent are being served. One legal aid lawyer is available for every 11,500 Texans who qualify.

While lawmakers consider cutting state funding, other legal aid sources are drying up too. Funding from Texas’ voluntary Interest on Lawyer’s Trust Accounts program dropped 75 percent since 2007, and federal legal aid funding has dropped by $12.3 million since 2011, according to justice foundation director Betty Balli Torres.

“We have this situation where IOLTA has dropped, and where the federal funding has dropped, so our state dollars become critical to us,” she said. “We’re just trying to stay even, understanding that ‘even’ is behind, if you take into consideration that we’ve lost both of these funding sources. We can’t afford to be cut.”

There’s one more possibility for boosting legal aid this session: drawing in more from civil penalties collected by the attorney general. As it is, some civil penalties and unclaimed civil restitution are diverted for legal aid, up to $10 million every two years. Hecht said that usually never reaches more than $2 million.

Thompson has filed a bill that would raise that cap to $50 million, and Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) has filed an identical bill in the Senate. It would be very rare to reach that $50 million mark, Torres said, “But if it were to happen, then we’d be in a situation where we’d have this lifeline that would help us get through for several years.”