Texas Access to Justice Foundation
Access to Justice Community Honors Legislative Heroes
AUSTIN, Texas – The Texas Access to Justice Foundation (TAJF) today kicked off Celebrate Pro Bono Week by hosting a luncheon with the Supreme Court of Texas and honoring three members of the Texas legislature for their commitment to access to justice.
TAJF, the Texas Access to Justice Commission, the State Bar of Texas and Texas legal aid service providers have joined a national effort to highlight the need to expand access to justice through pro bono civil legal services. It is estimated that there is only one legal aid lawyer for every 9,800 low-income Texans who qualify for free legal services. As a result, for every one Texan helped by a legal aid organization, another qualified individual is left to handle their legal problems on their own. The University of North Texas Survey Research Center estimates that Texas lawyers donate more than 2 million hours of pro bono work every year to help alleviate this justice gap.
At the luncheon, attendees were addressed by JoAnn Merica, Past President of the Austin Bar Association and a pro bono lawyer at the Austin Bar’s Free Legal Clinic for Veterans, one of the many programs funded by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation to serve Texas veterans. Prime Partner Banks, banks that pay higher interest rates on accounts ensuring more funding for legal aid, and the Construction Law Section of the State Bar of Texas were recognized for their support. Attendees also paid tribute to Ann Bower, a lawyer and businesswoman from Austin, who donated more than $1.5 million to the cause of access to justice after her death.
Legislative Hero Awards
Additionally, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht recognized Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), Representative Jessica Farrar (D-Houston) and Representative Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) with Legislative Hero Awards. The Texas Access to Justice Commission and Foundation launched the Legislative Hero Award program in 2010 to recognize legislators who have significantly advanced access to justice in Texas by assisting with the appropriation of funds and/or other substantive activities related to the provision of legal aid in the state.
“Many Texans cannot afford to hire an attorney to help them with their legal needs,” Sen. Judith Zaffirini said. “These are Texans who are trying to escape domestic violence, avoid homelessness and secure the benefits they earned by fighting for our country. We must ensure that 'justice for all' includes them too."
Sen. Judith Zaffirini has been instrumental in making access to justice available to more people, particularly to those who can least afford it. Through her leadership in the Senate, she helped ensure passage of Senate Bill 512 which authorized the creation of forms to allow low-income Texans who cannot afford a lawyer to address their probate needs, including simple will forms, small estate affidavit forms and muniment of title forms. She also worked to pass Senate Bill 478, which authorized the creation of forms to resolve housing disputes in landlord-tenant matters.
Rep. Jessica Farrar has worked on several measures to increase access to the often-costly probate process. During the 84th Legislative Session, along with Sen. Huffman, she helped create a transfer-on-death deed, which allows a property owner to pass real property to a designated beneficiary without a will or probate. Farrar also passed a measure to improve disclosures related to payable-on-death accounts to increase awareness and use of this type of account. Additionally, HB 705 by Farrar created a mechanism for a decedent's heirs to get bank account balance information from a bank, a necessary task when using a small estate affidavit.
"The legal system can be a confusing and costly experience for Texas who do not often use it," Rep. Farrar said. "The legislation passed last session streamlines the otherwise costly and extensive probate process for low-income families and others to afford them an opportunity to plan their estates or provide access to inherited property in an effort to prevent a 'cloudy title,' which limits the ability to sell or otherwise transfer property and to qualify for homestead tax exemptions."
As Vice Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Hughes consistently supported legislation to address funding shortfalls affecting legal aid programs and the Texans they serve. In the last legislative session, as a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Courts, Rep. Hughes’ vote of support was key to the Supreme Court receiving a $10 million appropriation for legal aid for survivors of sexual assault (LASSA).
“Ensuring that survivors of sexual assault have access to the legal resources they need is critical to their safety, health and well-being,” added Hughes. “Legal aid provides a vital lifeline to Texans in need.”
A complete list of Texas events for Pro Bono Week can be found by visiting:
512-320-0099, ext. 104
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