AUSTIN (AP) — Margarita Sanchez walked into a San Antonio legal aid office homeless, penniless, unemployed and stabbed by a husband who had thrown her out of their house and frozen their bank accounts.
He was in jail, but she didn't know for how long, and she only had the clothes on her back and nowhere to go. That's when she sought help from Family Violence Prevention Services Inc. in San Antonio.
"My attorney helped me with my divorce and a protective order quickly, and before my husband got out of jail," Sanchez told lawmakers and journalists. "Had I not been given a free attorney, I have no idea if I would be here today."
Most Americans know that if they are charged with a crime and can't afford an attorney, one will be appointed for them. But there's no such guarantee if your spouse beats you and freezes your accounts, or a bank forecloses on your home when you return home from duty in Afghanistan.
When low-income people find themselves in a situation requiring a lawyer, they rely on non-profit legal aid groups to defend them. In Texas, more than 5.7 million people qualify for legal aid based on their income, but the state only has enough money to help about 100,000 people a year, according to the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, the group charged with financing legal aid groups. At best, a quarter of those who need help get it.
The problem is two-fold: The number of poor in Texas keeps going up, and a fund called the Interest on Lawyer's Trust Accounts is only expected to generate $4.4 million in 2012 — compared to $20 million in 2007 — because of low interest rates.
Congress has also slashed funding for the national Legal Services Corporation, which resulted in a $6.1 million cut for the three largest Texas legal aid groups in 2012.
Texas lawmakers again find themselves needing to find funds to provide necessary services to the state's growing proportion of poor people. The poverty rate in Texas rose a third year in a row in 2011 to 18.5 percent, according to U.S. Census figures. Texas families rank 39th in the nation in terms of financial security, according to the Corporation for Enterprise Development.
Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht said he doesn't expect his fellow Republicans in control of the Legislature to set aside additional funding; instead he called on them to maintain the current level of spending.
"Helping struggling Texans with civil legal needs not only improves their lives and their families' lives, it is a boost to the entire state as well," Hecht said. "Ensuring that Texans have access to justice allows them to be self-sufficient."
Lawsuits often pitch the powerful against the weak, said Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston.
"Legal aid often means the difference between life and death, living in a home or on the streets, being self-sufficient or needing to rely on governmental agencies," she added.
Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, joined Thompson and other lawmakers in supporting companion bills that would increase the funds dedicated to legal aid from civil penalties and restitution recovered by the attorney general. The bill would also raise the cap on a Supreme Court fund for legal aid from $10 million to $50 million.
"The success of our civil justice system depends on the ability of all types of citizens to access our courts," Duncan said.
Veterans returning from overseas deployments are finding themselves increasingly involved in legal disputes that they can't afford to fight, lawmakers said. Federal law limits civil action against troops while they are deployed, but that protection ends when they return home. Family law and real estate cases are among the most common, but legal aid lawyers also help veterans obtain medical and disability benefits.
Texas lawyers are required to provide free legal services every year and in 2009 they donated $500 million worth of legal services, according to the State Bar of Texas.
In 2011, lawmakers facing a $27 billion budget shortfall found $17.5 million to fund legal aid programs, and they will likely do so again in 2013. But until the Texas poverty rate declines, the demand for services will continue to outstrip funding.
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