December, 2008Natural disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike and a rise in poverty continue to strain resources for providing free civil legal services to poor Texans, according to a report presented Dec. 10 to the Supreme Court of Texas by the Texas Access to Justice Commission.
"The report to the Court detailed the issues that impact access to the civil justice system in Texas, including limited resources, scarcity of legal services in rural areas of the state, and a rapidly increasing poverty population," Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson, said. "While important progress has been made, Texas is still facing significant challenges in providing justice for all of our citizens."
Texas saw a 27 percent rise in the number of poor residents from 2000 to 2007; about 5.1 million low-income people in Texas qualify for legal aid services. A new report from the U.S. Census Bureau indicated that two Texas counties--Cameron and Hildago--have the highest poverty rates of any U.S. counties with at least 250,000 residents.
Texas ranks just 43rd in the nation in per capita revenue spent to provide civil legal aid. And a national study by Legal Services Corp. found that legal aid programs turn away half of all qualified applicants because they lack the resources to help them. More specifically, legal aid is able to provide help for only 20-25 percent of the legal needs of low-income and poor Texans who need and seek legal help.
Meanwhile, thousands of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 relocated to Texas, and many of the new arrivals have sought civil legal services throughout the state. Furthermore, many Texans affected by Hurricane Rita three years ago and Hurricane Ike in Sept. of this year have required free legal aid.
"The clash between natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike and the increase in the impoverished population in Texas has created a funding gap almost as wide as the Rio Grande at the flood stage," James B. Sales of Houston, chairman of the Texas Access to Justice Commission, said.
Sales applauded the Texas judiciary--especially the Supreme Court and Justice Harriet O'Neill, the Court's representative on the Commission--and the State Bar of Texas for their continuing strong support of access to the justice system for poor Texans.
"Without the unwavering support of the Texas judiciary and the State Bar of Texas, thousands of Texans undoubtedly would go without desperately needed legal services," Sales said. "Any denial of access to the justice system because someone cannot afford legal representation violates our most primitive sense of fairness, decency and just plain basic justice."
In addition, Sales thanked the dedicated staff of legal aid and pro bono programs and the thousands of volunteer lawyers throughout Texas who have helped ensure equal access to justice.
Among the Texans who have benefited from that access is Debra Moran, who testified at the Dec. 10 hearing. Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, a nonprofit organization in Houston, provided nearly two years of free civil legal services to Moran and her grandchildren following the murder of her daughter, Leza Marie Maddalone.
In 2005, Maddalone was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend, Bruce Milner, during a conflict that arose at a visitation exchange of the children. Milner shot Debra Moran seven times, wounding her so severely that she remained in a coma for four months. Maddalone's two children, aged six and seven, witnessed both shootings.
"The legal help I received from Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse saved my life," Moran said.
Many Texas banks are partnering with the legal aid community to provide additional funding to help Texans such as Moran. Among others who testified at the hearing, Mike McGee, chair of Dallas City Bank and member of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation board of directors, spoke about expanding funding sources for legal aid, including the Foundation's Prime Partners program. Dallas City Bank is one of the 39 banks in Texas that voluntarily pay a net yield of 70 percent or more of the Federal Funds Target Rate on Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts (IOLTA). This interest is a significant source of funding for legal aid in the state.
Declining interest rates have had a major impact on IOLTA funding for legal aid in Texas. In 2007, IOLTA revenue was projected to reach $28 million, but totaled only $20 million. With major interest rate declines during 2008, IOLTA revenue is projected to fall to $12.1 this year, and next year the total is expected to be even lower--with a projection near $6 million. These declines in funding are expected to have a significant impact on legal aid services in the state.
A copy of the written report presented to the Court is available at www.TexasATJ.org .