Despite lawyers' pro bono efforts, the justice gap remains
Copyright 2019 (all rights reserved)
By Rudy Apodaca
(published as a guest column in the May 23, 2019 online edition and the May 24, 2019 print edition
of the San Antonio Express-News)
"The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”, reads a controversial line from William Shakespeare’s “Henry VI”.
Some contend that Shakespeare wasn’t disparaging lawyers but instead meant the line as a compliment. The character saying the line was a follower of a rebel who believed that if he disturbed law and order, he could become king. Attorneys and judges, because they instilled justice in a society, would thus hamper the pretenders’ efforts to overthrow the king.
Even though the practice of law has proven itself a time-honored profession, it hasn’t prevented many from showing disrespect or otherwise speaking ill of attorneys. I confess that the public’s distrust is at times warranted.
But there’s one area in which my colleagues have shown their dedication to the profession―in rising to fill a void in Texas by assisting those who need legal assistance but can ill-afford it. That calling is known as pro bono services. “for the public good”. It denotes work undertaken without charge, especially legal work for a client with low income.
One of the drawbacks of our legal system is that needs are left unattended for those who can’t afford legal services.
For years, courts and legal organizations have joined efforts to provide not only legal aid to the poor but programs allowing those who can’t afford legal help to obtain it at reduced costs. That doesn’t mean that our legal system hasn’t attempted to cure this quagmire. It definitely has, not only in Texas, but elsewhere. Some believe we’ve done a lot; others, not so much. Nonetheless, those attempts offer us both good and bad news.
First the good news.
For years, courts and legal organizations have joined efforts to provide not only legal aid to the poor but programs allowing those who can’t afford legal help to obtain it at reduced costs.
The American Bar Association believes that when a society confers the practice of law on its members, they accept a responsibility to make justice equally accessible to all. The organization encourages lawyers to offer pro bono services to those in need.
What are some of the things we’re doing in Texas to carry out this responsibility? I’ll touch on a few.
By surfing the internet, a person can find legal help, however limited. For example, there are websites that provide tools to learn about the various court systems.
Here’s a partial list of topics found in Texas LawHelp.org, a website of Texas Legal Services Center: court basics; family, divorce and children; protection from violence or abuse; house and apartment; health and benefits; money and debt; school and work; veterans and military. This website provides information and court forms for simple legal problems, and also has a chat capability.
There are websites that answer legal questions, such as justanswer.com/law/Texas or lawyers.findlaw.com. These are only lawyer referral websites, and some provide live chat. Although they don’t offer pro bono or reduced-fee programs, they offer a way for prospective clients to get their preliminary questions answered by an attorney.
For instance, Lawyer Referral Information Service, for a nominal fee, permits a 30-minute consultation with an attorney. At the end of the consultation, the attorney and prospective client may discuss possible representation and an affordable price structure.
Texas Legal Services Center performs two functions. First, it serves as a “gap filler”, providing legal services to Texas residents who don’t qualify for legal aid from various providers. Second, it offers support services to those providers. The center also runs several programs, such as Legal Hotline for Texans, Legal Aid for Survivors of Sexual Assault, South Central Pensions Rights Project and others that provide legal help to many Texans, including veterans.
Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas was founded in 1981 by Austin attorneys with a mandate to ensure that poverty isn#8217t a barrier to justice. Its founders envisioned “an organization that mobilized volunteer attorneys to give back to their community through donations of time and legal expertise.”
Throughout Texas, many Legal Aid Societies offer free legal assistance to those who qualify.
The State Bar of Texas does not provide direct legal services, but it does give referrals and offer information about resources, such as to low-cost legal service agencies. It also offers other helpful programs.
Trish McAllister is the Executive Director of the Texas Access to Justice Commission and Director of the Legal Access Division of the State Bar of Texas.
Her division publishes a referral directory every two years. The 2019-2020 Referral Directory―Legal Services and Other Resources for Low-Income Texans is available at the State Bar of Texas website.
The division also provides support services and materials to Texas attorneys who perform pro bono services. The State Bar of Texas offers continuing legal education courses every year to train and assist pro bono attorneys.
Now the bad―and sad―news.
No matter the efforts made to provide access to justice, the reality is that many legal needs are left unmet. There’s a gap that we must close if we are to have access to justice for all.
There are more than 100,000 licensed lawyers in Texas. Pro-bono surveys show that on average, 50 percent of practicing attorneys provide pro bono services. But there are 5.6 million poor people in the state, many of whom require legal services. Legal aid lawyers work hard to help as many of the them as limited resources will permit, and private attorneys continue to donate their pro bono services. Yet, only 10 percent of the need is being met.
The mission of the Texas Commission to Expand Civil Legal Services is to gather and evaluate information on expanding legal services to low- and middle-income Texans and to recommend to the Supreme Court of Texas how to accomplish that expansion.
According to the commission, a study showed that Texas lawyers provide more than 2 million hours of pro bono legal services annually. Despite these efforts, the justice gap remains. Texas legal aid providers estimate that 3 out of 4 qualified applicants are turned away for lack of resources and funding.
Unfortunately, the unmet need for legal services isn’t limited to the poor. The middle class, which earns too much to qualify for legal aid but not enough to afford an attorney, suffers also.
McAllister suggested other, non-traditional methods to resolve the gap. “We must look at alternatives, such as pro se dockets,” she said, “because we’ve got to face the fact that there just aren’t enough attorneys to handle the need.”
As noted by the commission, “Judge Learned Hand, a famous jurist, once observed that ’if we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: Thou shalt not ration justice.’ The late U. S. Supreme Court Justice Scalia added, ’But without access to quality legal representation, there is no justice.’”
I’m hopeful that Texas’ legal profession will do all it can in the years to come to assure the justice gap will be a thing of the past.