Lawmakers Look For Ways to Help People Who Can't Afford Lawyers

Every year, thousands of Texans who can't afford to hire attorneys take a go at handling their own civil cases. Ahead of the next legislative session, lawmakers and legal service providers are looking for ways to make the process easier.

Every year, thousands of Texans who can't afford to hire attorneys take a go at handling their own civil cases. Ahead of the next legislative session, lawmakers and legal service providers are looking for ways to make the legal process easier for those who represent themselves.

Almost 4 percent of the more than 300,000 civil cases filed in Texas courts in 2015 involved plaintiffs or petitioners who didn't have an attorney, according to the Texas Office of Court Administration. The office does not capture data statewide for defendants who represent themselves. It's unclear how self-representation affects either party's chances of success.

In the same year, about 20 percent of family law cases (348,151 total) and about 4 percent of probate and guardianship cases (65,042 total) involved plaintiffs or petitioners who didn't have an attorney. While some might be representing themselves by choice, many can't afford legal help, state officials, attorneys and advocates say.

Offering some relief, the state in January launched a self-help filing site offering assistance with common filings like divorces, name changes, eviction cases and small claims.

For people struggling to navigate the court system, the site offers a TurboTax-like approach by asking questions and offering guidance based on the answers, said David Slayton, administrative director of the Office of Court Administration. More than 15,000 people in 462 cities have used the site so far.

While trying to help individuals, courts also grapple with issues of fairness, Slayton said.

"Part of the challenge from the judge's side of things is the courts are meant to be a neutral place," Slayton said. "We're not supposed to give preferential treatment to one party or another. So if one of the parties is representing themselves, then, obviously we have to be careful about any sort of assistance we provide to them."

Local communities also offer legal advice for lower-income individuals, and some provide courtroom cheat sheets, but a gap in information and services still exists, legal services advocates testified Wednesday before the state House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee. 

Suggested fixes include having standardized forms available online for common cases such as wills and divorces. And while some counties offer basic information, others don't, a staff attorney with Texas Appleseed testified. 

The staff attorney, Brett Merfish, said several court websites across the state offer little information, and in some cases information only helpful for the party bringing a suit forward. Zeroing in on debt claim cases, which involve 150,000 people in Texas, Merfish suggested lawmakers consider creating a uniform form for defendants that would allow them "to present their cases more accurately" and efficiently and put the process "in plain language." 

Other attorneys and advocates suggested streamlining services across the state. Trish McAllister, executive director of the Texas Access to Justice Commission, suggested establishing formal guidelines for judges, clerks and court staff for how they help people represent themselves. Randy Chapman, executive director of the Texas Legal Services Center, said free legal information should be available statewide.

His organization's legal advice site has received more than a million unique visitors so far this year, he testified.

"People want trustworthy legal advice," he said. "They don't want to go to Craigslist. They don't want to go to Legal Zoom and other places."

Standardized forms are basic and should be easily available, Chapman said.

"This is immensely helpful for people who are moderate income," he said. "Staffers in this building have told me, 'I cannot afford a lawyer if I got into trouble.'"

The State Bar of Texas, the agency that oversees attorneys, has not taken a position on interim charges, its spokeswoman said, but "a core tenet of the state bar is to assure all citizens equal access to justice."

As lawmakers work with suggestions and conduct their own research, the judiciary will undertake its own research ahead of January. The Texas Supreme Court in 2015 established the Texas Commission to Expand Civil Legal Services to help businesses and the middle class who can't afford attorneys. The commission will have its first report out in November.

Disclosure: The State Bar of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.