A recent KXAN article reportsthat the funding for Texas Legal Aid programs are running out.
Most people are aware of the fact that they are entitled to free legal counsel should they be unable to afford an attorney in criminal cases. However, the same is not true of civil matters. In other words, if someone sues you and you are unable to defend the suit, you are basically out of luck.
Legal Aid programs seek to fill that gap. They generally operate by receiving funding from various governmental or other eleemosynary sources and programs, and then providing free legal services to individuals who meet income guidelines. Individuals facing domestic abuse in the home, and other related Family Law issues, as well as Real Estate cases are among the most common sorts of matters handled by legal aid organizations in Texas. Veterans are also commonly involved in these sorts of legal financing issues when they return from service overseas only to be confronted with foreclosure proceedings, for example.
According to at least one estimate, more than 5.7 million people in Texas qualify for legal aid based on their income, but the state only has enough funding to help about 100,000. The problem is becoming compounded by the fact that while poverty is rising throughout the state, funding continues to shrink.
Legal Aid programs in Texas, as in many other states, are primarily financed by a fund that accumulates interest from lawyers' trust accounts throughout the state. Lawyers are required to have trust accounts to hold their clients' funds which have not yet been earned, but lawyers cannot legally keep the interest these accounts earn, they must return them to the state. Thus, while the trust accounts are continuing to earn interest, the rates are so low that the fund is only expected to generate $4.4 million from 2012, compared with $20 million in 2007.
Additionally, the federal government has chopped away at the funding for the national Legal Services Corporation, which has lead to a $6.1 million cut in funding last year for three of the largest Texas legal aid groups.
Legislators, judges, and other lawyers have been pushing the Attorney General's office for an increase in the available funding for such legal aid programs from the current $10 million to $50 million, in order to ensure that such needs are being met. It would fund legal aid services for those who qualify with money recovered by the attorney general in successfully won "consumer protection, public health or general welfare" cases.
While not required to provide pro bono legal services, according to the State Bar, in 2009 Texas lawyers provided 2.24 million to 2.56 million hours of their time, valued at nearly $500 million worth of free legal services.
It is sort of a sad reality that the people who will need legal help the most in a down economy, will probably be even less likely to get it because of a lack of funding. Hopefully lawmakers will be able to put together a better financing package in order to increase the number of Texans helped by these legal aid programs.