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Lawmakers and Judge Push for Legal Aid Funding

A Texas Supreme Court Justice and several lawmakers are pushing to raise the amount of money that can be given by the attorney general's office to indigent legal aid services groups.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
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Funding for civil legal aid has dried up over the last few years, and a group of lawyers and lawmakers including Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht are calling for a new source of revenue.

They want the Legislature to approve an extra $40 million in funding from the state attorney general's office, which would be given to legal services groups that help indigent individuals who cannot afford a lawyer for their divorces, foreclosures or other legal issues.

Due to economic changes over the last few years, the traditional source of funding for legal aid services groups — interest payments in bank accounts where lawyers deposit their clients' money — has dried up. In 2007, these payments brought in $20.1 million. By 2012, that had dropped to $4.4 million, leading Hecht to estimate that only one in five of those individuals who who are entitled to free legal aid can get it.

Hecht, other judges and lawyers, and several lawmakers are promoting a policy change they said would increase access to legal aid. It would direct money to indigent legal aid services from the attorney general's victories in "consumer protection, public health or general welfare" cases. Now, only $10 million of that money can be dedicated to indigent legal aid in civil matters. The bills (House Bill 1445 by state Reps. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston; Sarah Davis, R-West University Place; John Davis, R-Houston; and Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, and Senate Bill 635 by state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock) would raise the cap to $50 million. 

In addition to the interest payments from lawyers' trust accounts, funding would continue to come from the Legal Services Corporation, established by Congress in 1974 to grant money to smaller organizations. That organization lost $6.1 million from the Texas portion of its annual budget, which reduced money for Texas legal aid groups. Those pushing for the current policy change hope that the extra $40 million from the attorney general's office will plug the holes left by these decreasing sources.

"It's kind of hard to tell prospectively what is going to be the need, but we thought it was a fair number," Hecht said, estimating that now only one in five of those entitled to civil legal aid can get it. He credited the Texas Bar Association with providing "millions of hours" in free legal help, but said that their efforts would not meet the demand.

"Our civil legal system is complex, and there are people who are unable to navigate," Duncan explained. "This program has run short because of problems we've all been seeing with our economy."

Hecht and the lawmakers touted the case of Margarita Sanchez as a prime example of the need for expanded access to legal aid. The group Legal Services for Family Violence Prevention Services in San Antonio helped her get a protective order against her husband and obtain a divorce. "At the time that I received the legal assistance, I was homeless, jobless and injured," Sanchez said at the conference, with tears in her eyes. "Had I not been given a free attorney, I have no idea if I would be here today."

Julia Raney Rodriguez, her attorney and the director of the organization, said more funding is needed. "There are many, many more that never walk through the doors of the agency, who I never meet," Rodriguez said.

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Courts Criminal justice Senfronia Thompson Texas Supreme Court