Access to Justice
By Bruce P. Bower
Access to justice relies on funds appropriated by the Texas Legislature. The 88th Texas Legislature convened on January 10, 2023, and concluded its regular session on May 29, 2023. The Legislature passed the biennial state budget as HB 1, effective September 1, 2023. The Texas Senate voted in favor of HB 1, 29-2, on May 26, 2023. The Texas House of Representatives voted in favor of HB 1, 124-22, on May 27, 2023.1
For fiscal years 2024-2025, appropriations for basic civil legal services are part of the HB 1 appropriations for the Supreme Court of Texas. In other words, it is the Supreme Court of Texas that, through its legislative appropriations request, sets the amount of state funds that the Legislature is requested to appropriate for basic civil legal services. Article IV of HB 1 is the article in which appropriations to the judiciary are found.
For the biennium that starts September 1, 2023, the Legislature appropriated $45,134,392 for FY 2024 for basic civil legal services, and $35,134,392 for FY 2025 (which starts September 1, 2024).2 The goal that the Legislature set for this strategy—the output—is that, each year, 28 grantees will receive state funding for basic civil legal services.3 The Legislature stated, “It is the intent of the Legislature that appropriations made by this Act [HB 1] be utilized in the most efficient and effective manner possible to achieve the intended mission of the Supreme Court of Texas.”4
The Supreme Court of Texas is required to report semi-annually each year to the Legislative Budget Board and the governor, “showing disbursements from all funding sources for Basic Civil Legal Services, the purpose for each disbursement, and compliance with grant conditions.”5
The $10 million difference between the FY 2024 appropriation and the
smaller FY 2025 appropriation results from that $10 million being
included in FY 2024 “for basic civil legal services to victims of sexual
assault that may only be used for purposes established for the Supreme
Court of Texas in Government Code §420.008.”6 Texas
Government Code §420.008 (c)(11) specifies this appropriation to “the
supreme court, to be transferred to the Texas Access to Justice
Foundation, or a similar entity, to provide victim-related legal
services to sexual assault victims, including legal assistance with
protective orders, relocation-related matters, victim compensation, and
actions to secure privacy protections available to victims under
law[;]”7 thus, for the biennium,
$10 million is specifically for services to victims of sexual assault.
Of the amount appropriated for basic civil legal services for FY 2024 and FY 2025, “$3,500,000 each fiscal year in General Revenue [is] for the purpose of providing basic civil legal services to veterans and their families.”8 Thus, over the biennium, $7 million is specifically for basic civil legal services for low-income veterans.
SB 658 may provide an additional, modest amount of funding for basic civil legal services. SB 658 amends the Texas Property Code, adding section 74.604. As stated in the bill analysis, SB 658 “allows unclaimed IOLTA funds to be transferred from the comptroller to the Supreme Court of Texas’ judicial fund to help support basic civil legal services.”9
The fiscal note for SB 658 states that approximately $48,000 of such unclaimed IOLTA funds is received annually by the comptroller.10 SB 658, signed by the governor on June 18, 2023, is effective September 1, 2023.
Readers who are interested in the grant conditions for basic civil legal services appropriations in HB 1 can visit the website of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.11 At that site one can read about the renewed statewide legal clinic initiative for Texas veterans. (Remember that the 88th Texas Legislature specified that $3.5 million in FY 2024 and $3.5 million in FY 2025 is to be used to provide basic civil legal services to low-income Texas veterans.) One can also read about a very recent initiative, the statewide virtual court kiosk project, as well as the income and resource criteria that limit eligibility for basic civil legal services funded by the Texas Legislature.
The Supreme Court of Texas created the Texas Access to Justice Commission in 2001 in Misc. Docket No. 01-9065 to “develop and implement policy initiatives designed to expand access to and enhance the quality of justice in civil legal matters for low-income Texas residents.”12 Readers interested in the work of the Texas Access to Justice Commission can visit the “In the News” section of the TAJC’s website13 and read about the commission’s current activities.
Readers interested in the ongoing work of the Supreme Court of Texas regarding access to justice can visit its website.14 The Supreme Court has numerous forms for self-represented individuals.15 One can locate a county-by-county directory of referral programs, as well as links to TexasLawHelp.org and to three Legal Services Corporation “field programs” in Texas, which are among the 28 grantees of the basic civil legal funding from the 88th Legislature.16
The roles that the governor, the chief justice and the entire Supreme Court of Texas, the lieutenant governor, and the speaker of the house carry out in support of basic civil legal services can be seen in the fact that state funds for basic civil legal services are appropriated by the Legislature to the Supreme Court in a bill that the governor signed. Among the three branches of state government, the Supreme Court begins that process by proposing the amount to be appropriated for basic civil legal services as part of the court’s budget request to the Legislature.
BRUCE P. BOWER volunteers for Texas Legal Services Center. He has been a member of the State Bar of Texas since 1989.