No money? Thinking you can't get legal help?

Feb. 8, 2012 at 7:01 p.m.
Updated Feb. 7, 2012 at 8:08 p.m.

Much attention is paid to the lack of access to medical care by low income uninsured people. A less recognized, but growing problem, is the lack of access to legal services.

It is inevitable, low-income Texans/people need legal help. Whether it is a property-line dispute with a neighbor, a landlord-tenant dispute, the transfer of property on the death of a relative, a divorce or a child custody issue, low-income people need access to legal services. Those most in need are often the elderly, women and children. The inability to access the legal system can lead to the loss of a home, the separation of children from their parents, the continuation of abusive relationships, and leaves those without money to hire a lawyer at the mercy of those who can afford one.

In Texas, legal services have traditionally been provided to those who are unable to pay in two ways, public and privately-funded legal aid programs and lawyers who voluntarily provide free services to the poor. The system is coming up short.

Legal Aid lawyers provide free services to qualified low-income people. The program is paid for through grants from a variety of federal, state and local agencies, as well as foundations and corporations. Part of the funding comes from interest earned on lawyers' trust fund accounts. Victoria has a Legal Aid office that is part of the nonprofit Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Inc. It is estimated that there are 21,000 potential clients per legal aid lawyer.

The second way to address this problem is for private lawyers to provide legal services to low-income people free of charge. The State Bar of Texas in 2000 adopted an aspirational goal of 50 hours of free legal services to low-income Texans each year by each Texas attorney.

In spite of these and other programs, the need is not being met. An estimated 75 percent of the legal needs of low-income Texans are not being met.

One solution with growing interest and promise is self-representation in civil cases. Victoria County Court-at-Law Judge Laura Wieser, Victoria County Deputy Clerk Becky Wade and attorneys Constance Filley Johnson and Jim Cole recently attended a two-day "Shared Solutions Summit" in Austin. The meeting of local justice leaders was sponsored by the Texas Judicial Council and Conference of Urban Counties. The goal of the meeting was to explore local justice system improvements in the context of criminal, child protection and self-representation in civil cases.

People representing themselves in legal matters is not new. For years, legal forms for wills, contracts and other legal documents have been available in books and libraries, and more recently on the Internet. Untrained persons representing themselves in a court proceeding present challenges for the individual and for the system. Representing yourself in a divorce proceeding may not be brain surgery, but on the other hand, it is anything but easy. The forms available on the Internet and other places often don't fit and are difficult to use. The results of getting it wrong can be harsh. Difficulties are not limited to filling out forms but include finding your way around the courthouse, with very little guidance. Self-represented people can slow down the system, presenting challenges for judges, court clerks and personnel.

As difficult as it may be, it appears self-representation must be part of providing access to the courts by low-income people. The Texas Supreme Court has recently made the development of standardized forms for divorces and other family law matters a priority, assigning the responsibility to a task force. The State Bar of Texas created its own task force "Solutions 2012" to study the issue. The idea has met with opposition from some family law lawyers, citing serious mistakes that can be made in completing the forms. Others have suggested lawyer opposition to self-representation is motivated by the fear of lost income. The bottom line is that most people who can afford an attorney will still likely, and should, hire an attorney. Those who cannot afford an attorney would have easier access to the justice system.

Texas courts belong to the residents of the state. Citizens have an absolute right to represent themselves in court. The courthouse must be accessible to all Texans, including those who cannot afford a lawyer and choose to go at it alone.

There are no easy answers, but it is a problem that is not going away.

Will Sciba and Jim Cole are shareholders in the Victoria law firm Cole, Cole & Easley P.C. Jim Cole is a past member of the State Bar of Texas Committee for Legal Services for the Poor.



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