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Jurists, Lawmakers, Lawyers: Aid Funds Running Out

Organizations that provide legal services to those who can't afford them are quickly running out of money even as the need for their help is increasing, advocates said Wednesday at a press conference.

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Crystal was on food stamps, she was unemployed and at one point she even had a gun pointed in her face. With the legal help of Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, she now has a job, she can afford groceries and she has hope. "These people saved my life," said Crystal, who gave only her first name because she is an abuse victim.

Organizations like Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, which provide legal services to those who can't afford them, are quickly running out of money at the same time that the need for their services is increasing, lawmakers, jurists and legal advocates said today at a press conference.

The economic recession has a three-fold negative effect on legal aid for the poor, said Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht: more poor people, more need for civil legal services and fewer resources to meet the need.

Since 1984, legal services for the poor have been largely funded by interest from the Texas Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts program. The recession caused the interest rate to crash, resulting in a $15 million loss in funding for legal aid compared to 2007.

“When you’re operating on a shoestring to begin with, that is catastrophic,” said James B. Sales, chairman of the Texas Access to Justice Commission. The Legislature approved a $20 million one-time boost in 2009 to restore funding, but continued economic woes have left IOLTA with only $5 million in projected revenue for 2011 and 2012.

There are 5.7 million Texans who qualify for legal aid — nearly double the number from 2004, said Sales. But there's only enough funding for about 25 percent of their civil legal needs. Civil legal aid helps families whose homes have been foreclosed, those who need legal documents to get medical care and the elderly who have been denied medication or food stamps.

Texas has a constitutional obligation to make legal services available to everyone, said state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso. He filed legislation to restore funding for legal aid. “Whatever cuts we have to make — this is not an area that we should go back on,” Rodriguez said.

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Courts Criminal justice State government Budget José R. Rodríguez Judiciary of Texas Nathan L. Hecht Texas Legislature Texas Supreme Court