$24 Million in State Funding for Legal Aid & Defense Services Added to Budget Bill

Office of Senator José Rodríguez—

After several months of leading the charge to fund legal aid and indigent defense, Senator José Rodríguez was successful in persuading Senate leadership in finding $24 million to fund legal aid and indigent defense services. The funding, which was approved as an amendment to S.B. 2 by Senator Ogden is now headed to the House for final approval.

“I applaud Senator Ogden for understanding the importance of this issue and helping to ensure funding for these essential services,” said Senator Rodríguez. “Currently, only one in five Texans in need of legal aid help are being served due to lack of funding. There is a critical need, especially for veterans trying to receive VA benefits, victims of domestic violence seeking justice, and senior citizens who have been denied benefits through Medicaid.”

“The Legislature can no longer ignore the funding for these critical legal services,” continued Rodríguez. “If we don’t do something now, the costs will be passed on to the taxpayers of this state, and so many in need may be denied access to their constitutional right to legal representation.”

On Wednesday, Texas Supreme Court Justices Wallace Jefferson and Nathan Hecht sent a letter requesting support of increased funding for Texas legal aid services. In the letter, the Justices stated:

“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. A society that denies access to the courts for the least among us denigrates the law for us all. For these reasons, securing funding for basic civil legal services has been a priority for the Supreme Court, one to which its members are unanimously committed.”

For legal aid services, funds generated from Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) pay for much of the cost. Due to persistently low interest rates, the IOLTA revenue for legal aid in 2011-2012 is projected to fall to only $5 million per year, which will result in $15 million less in available funds compared to 2007 levels.

In Texas, there are approximately 40 legal aid organizations serving over 100,000 individuals and families annually. Yet, at current funding levels, four out of five eligible Texans go without legal help. Nearly half of cases involve domestic abuse or other family law issues.

It is a constitutional requirement that the state provide indigent defense, yet the budget passed last month cuts state funding for indigent defense by 15%, or $8.6 million, over the 2012-13 biennium. If state funding is not available, Texas counties must pay for the cost.

Of the $24 million added in SB 2, $17 million will be used for legal services and $7 million for indigent defense during the 2012-13 biennium. It is still necessary for the measure to pass the Texas House of Representatives.

The following State and Local Associations that have adopted resolutions supporting increased funding for legal services:

  • The State Bar of Texas
  • Texas Judicial Council
  • Association of Corporate Counsel-Austin Chapter
  • Dallas Asian American Bar Association
  • Dallas Bar Association
  • Fort Worth-Tarrant County Young Lawyers Association
  • Hidalgo County Bar Association
  • San Antonio Bar Association
  • Smith County Bar Association
  • Texas Young Lawyers Association
  • Travis County Women Lawyers’ Association
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