AUSTIN, Texas, July 21, 2011 /PRNewswire/ -- In a tremendous show of bipartisan support, the Texas Legislature has appropriated $ 17.5 million for civil legal aid and $7.6 million for county indigent defense programs in general revenue during the recent Special Session. Gov. Rick Perry signed Senate Bill 2 that included an amendment for funding civil legal services on July 19.
This funding makes up for the $20 million awarded in the 2009 Session to mitigate the decline in interest on lawyers' trust accounts (IOLTA) funds, a primary source of funding for legal aid. IOLTA funding has declined more than 75 percent since 2007.
"All Texans should be grateful for the actions of the Texas House and Senate in these efforts to provide access to justice for Texans who could otherwise not afford it," Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan L. Hecht, the Court's liaison for access to justice issues, said. "For its own integrity's sake, the civil justice system must be available to every Texan victimized by domestic violence, to each veteran wrongly denied the benefits our country has promised, and to all families who have paid their bills but are nevertheless evicted from their homes."
Following on the formal request for emergency relief by the Texas Supreme Court, and with the leadership of Senators Ogden, West, Rodriguez, Hinojosa, Ellis and Duncan, the Texas Senate amended Senate Bill 2 on June 3 to include a provision for funding legal aid.
"As a former legal aid lawyer, I am grateful that the Legislature provided the funding necessary to live up to our commitment of ensuring that everyone, regardless of their means, can access our justice system," Sen. Jose Rodriguez said.
In the House, the amendment appropriating $25 million for the two programs was offered by Rep. Jim Pitts, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "It was a privilege to offer this amendment to help protect Texans' fundamental right to fair legal representation," Pitts said.
Rep. Will Hartnett and Rep. Jerry Madden were also among the many supporters in the House. "Assuring access to basic legal services is a vital role of our state government," Hartnett said. "I am delighted that the House has renewed the funding of this important program."
The legal aid system in Texas annually provides more than 100,000 families with basic civil legal services in times of desperate need; however, many qualified individuals are turned away due to lack of resources. To qualify for legal aid, an individual must not earn more than $13,613 per year. For a family of four, the household income cannot exceed $27,938. Approximately 5.7 million Texans currently qualify for legal aid.
The Texas Access to Justice Commission was created in 2001 by the Supreme Court of Texas to develop and implement policy initiatives designed to expand access to and enhance the quality of justice in civil legal matters for low-income Texans. The Commission has created several initiatives to increase resources and awareness of legal aid. For more information, please visit www.TexasATJ.org.
The Texas Access to Justice Foundation, created by the Supreme Court of Texas in 1984, is the primary funding source for the provision of civil legal aid in Texas. The organization is committed to the vision that all Texans will have equal access to justice, regardless of their income. The Foundation administers a variety of funding sources, which are earmarked to assist nonprofit organizations in providing legal aid to approximately 100,000 Texas families each year.
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SOURCE Texas Access to Justice Commission; Texas Access to Justice Foundation