Supreme Court advisory
Contact: Osler McCarthy, staff attorney for public information
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Wednesday, June 1, 2011
COURT URGES BUDGET ITEM FOR LEGAL-AID FOR POOR
Analysis offered to Senator West at his request
In an analysis Wednesday responding to a legislative request, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson and Justice Nathan L. Hecht urged a $20 million budget item for Texas legal-aid programs that was omitted in the waning-days budget debate in the regular legislative session.
Without the $20 million, Jefferson and Hecht told state Sen. Royce West, as many as 25,000 low-income Texas residents would be denied basic legal services now provided to 104,000 families – and, they added, that figure could mean more than 75,000 people affected because of the disproportionate number of single-parent households. They estimated the need for legal assistance at 5.7 million people in the state.
“Some consider this Court conservative,” they wrote. “Conservative principles do not call for the rule of law to be denied the most vulnerable members of our community. The civil justice system is where people can claim for themselves the benefits of the rule of law. It is where the promises of the rule of law become real.”
West asked for the analysis as legislators in special
session seek to resurrect bipartisan support for legal-aid assistance in the
state budget for the next two years.
Jefferson and Hecht, the Court’s liaison to the Texas Access to Justice Commission and Texas Access to Justice Foundation, warned of legal-aid organization perishing for lack of money and said such legal aid was the “portal” through which legal-aid lawyers systematically match private attorneys to work for poor clients for free.
The $20 million the Court is seeking for legal aid, they wrote, “is not to compensate lawyers. The lawyer who represents an indigent victim of domestic violence works for free or for sums vastly below what the private sector commands. Legal aid lawyers work to preserve the rule of law, and thus the integrity of our civil justice system.”
They mentioned as examples of people who need legal help but cannot afford lawyers domestic-violence victims – a major share of legal-assistance clients – veterans fighting to secure their promised benefits and families who have paid their bills but face eviction anyway.
For years Texas legal-aid programs benefited from interest collected on trust accounts most lawyers must establish to hold money owed to clients in the short term. But near-zero interest rates paid by banks on with these accounts have stripped financing for legal assistance for the indigent by at least three-quarters, to slightly more than $4 million projected for this year from $20 million in 2007.