San Antonio Express-News

Deepening need for legal aid

- By Nathan L. Hecht Nathan Hecht is chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court and a U.S. Navy veteran.

As we approach the first anniversar­y of pandemic-induced lockdowns, hundreds of thousands of Texans are still grappling with job losses, evictions or domestic violence stemming from the stay-at-home orders, among other issues. Now, we have just endured one of the worst winter storms on record — plunging millions of Texans into frigid temperatur­es and darkness due to a days-long loss of power along with loss of clean water.

The pandemic caused many in our communitie­s to seek civil legal assistance for the first time to obtain benefits, shelter and safety. The added stresses of the winter storm mean even more Texans will need help as we work to recover from the costliest natural disaster in our state’s history.

Civil legal aid is an essential resource that ensures all Texans have equal access to the justice system. While legal aid providers are working tirelessly to provide these invaluable services, the need for assistance grows as the economic and health effects from COVID-19 continue and increase on the heels of the winter storm.

Since March 2020, more than 4 million Texans filed jobless claims. From 2019 to 2020, Texaslawhe­lp.org, a statewide website that provides free legal informatio­n, saw an almost 1,500 percent increase in traffic for unemployme­nt help. Additional­ly, web traffic for eviction help jumped by 185 percent, and the site saw an increase of 230 percent in people facing foreclosur­e.

The increased need for civil legal help became so great that the Texas Supreme Court helped create the Texas Eviction Diversion Program to assist tenants and landlords struggling with paying or collecting rent due to COVID-19.

Yet the problem remains. Many Texans are still struggling as they try to decide what bills they can pay this month, and what ones they will have to let go past due. To compound the issue, Texans are now experienci­ng food and water insecurity and property loss from the winter storm.

Civil legal aid remains essential for Texans facing obstacles beyond unemployme­nt, evictions and damaged or destroyed property. Veterans who are denied their rightful benefits, the elderly who have been refused access to proper medical care and families that are continuall­y on the verge of homelessne­ss all depend on the irreplacea­ble work of legal aid programs.

To keep these essential organizati­ons and programs running, more funding is critical, especially as a primary source of legal funding — the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts program — declined significan­tly in 2020. In March 2020, just as COVID-19 began to wreak havoc on Texans, interest rates were cut unexpected­ly, resulting in a 50 percent reduction in funds — about $750,000 per month — in just 13 days.

Legal aid providers are a lifeline for so many Texans in good times, and much more so during a pandemic followed by a natural disaster. While the funding we have received has been critical in doing our job, the need remains as the wave of economic emergencie­s from the pandemic has yet to subside, and the fallout will be felt for years. It is because of this most unpreceden­ted time in our history, the Texas Supreme Court is requesting additional funding because of the dire need for assistance.

All Texans deserve access to basic civil legal services. Helping Texans obtain assistance with civil legal needs is a bipartisan, good-government issue. Families deserve help when facing eviction, veterans deserve access to benefits, children and mothers deserve safety from abusive situations, and Texans deserve assistance when their homes have been damaged due to a major disaster. On behalf of the Texas Supreme Court and our civil legal aid providers, I thank those who recognize and prioritize this right and ask that you remain committed to ensuring access to justice for all.

 ?? Callaghan O’hare / For the Washington Post ?? Many low-income households are struggling in the COVID-19 pandemic. After last month’s deadly winter storms, many are also suffering additional hardships, such as burst pipes. Because civil legal aid can help, the Texas Supreme Court is requesting additional funding.
Callaghan O’hare / For the Washington Post Many low-income households are struggling in the COVID-19 pandemic. After last month’s deadly winter storms, many are also suffering additional hardships, such as burst pipes. Because civil legal aid can help, the Texas Supreme Court is requesting additional funding.
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