Dallas Bar Association

The Need for Legal Aid is Greater Than Ever Before

by Alicia Hernandez

Funding for legal aid to the poor is yet another victim of the ongoing economic struggles facing our world, and these struggles are worsened by the long-standing debate over whether funding for legal services should even exist.

For nearly a century, legal aid programs were funded by private donations until federal funding for legal aid was created in the 1960s. These early roots of federal funding for legal aid to the poor evolved into the federally funded, non-profit organization, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which was created in 1974. Under its leadership, legal aid programs expanded, and legal aid services to the poor increased. Today, funding from the Legal Services Corporation provides a considerable amount of funding for 900 legal aid and pro bono programs throughout the country.

In the 1980s, LSC-funded legal aid programs were required to add formal pro bono programs, like the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program, to increase the amount of free legal help available to the poor with the assistance of volunteer attorneys. State-based funding for legal aid was also developed, including funding from Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) such as the one administered by the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation. Many dedicated volunteer attorneys and donors have championed the cause of legal aid to the poor over the years, but, despite this support and dedication, federal funding for legal services has been fraught with controversy throughout its history.

Federal funding for legal aid has never been substantial enough to meet the need for legal help. The limited amount of federal funding available, and the much larger concept of access to justice, has typically been tied to the congressional support or lack thereof for legal aid. It has been a hot button topic in congressional circles over the years, and increases and decreases to the bottom line for legal aid programs have resulted in a yo-yo, “now you see it, now you don’t” effect for lawyers who just want to serve the poor through the justice system.

The yo-yo funding for legal aid to the poor is now compounded by the current economic situation. As attorneys, other legal professionals, and the public at large have been forced to cut back to survive, so have legal aid programs. Historically low interest rates have devastated income from Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts. Foundations have seen their resources dry up as the stock market struggled, and individuals with less income have been unable to donate to various causes, including legal aid to the poor.

In Texas, we have experienced great leadership to prevent the economic eradication of access to justice for the poor. The Supreme Court of Texas made a successful request of the Texas Legislature to appropriate funds for legal aid to the poor. This effort saved legal aid to the poor in Texas and has allowed it to continue operating at current levels. However, the struggle continues. Congress is expected to reduce funding for the Legal Service Corporation for the coming year, and legal aid programs both locally and beyond will suffer.

The great losers in this entire process are those with the least power and the weakest voice—the poor. They are defenseless children, battered spouses, those who have served our country, and the disabled. They are the working poor who struggle every day to make ends meet. They are mothers raising families who have been widowed or abandoned by a spouse. They are regular people with expected legal issues ranging from family law to housing issues and consumer fraud.

If controversy and financial troubles were not enough, the number of people living in poverty continues to grow. Today, 600,000 of the 2.4 million people living in Dallas County qualify for free legal help from DVAP. This qualification is based entirely on income and assets and is so low that a family of four must have an annual income at or below $27,938 to qualify for help. These are the people for whom legal advice, counsel and representation is only a dream but for legal aid.

The concept of whether people, even those with little or no resources, should have access to justice depends on whether people are willing to keep access to our courts, access to legal advice and counsel, and access to legal information alive.

This is where the lawyers come in. Who among us is better suited to pursue the dream of justice for all? Attorneys as a whole are arguably more committed to the tenets of justice, the rule of law, and access to our courts than any other group of Americans. They have committed their lives to upholding the principles of liberty and justice for all.

Every attorney at every level can help by representing pro bono clients, donating to the cause, advocating for funding for legal aid programs, and educating others about the importance of keeping our legal system open and accessible to all.

Alicia Hernandez is the director of the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program and the DBA director of community services. She can be reached at ahernandez@dallasbar.org.

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