TBJ January 2022

2021: The Year in Review

Texas Access to Justice

Written by Harry Reasoner

As my 15th year as a Texas Access to Justice commissioner and my 12th and final year as TAJC’s chair comes to a close, I have reflected on what has been accomplished and what remains after we survive the pandemic.

The shocking thing to me when I first joined the commission, in spite of my decades of pro bono work, was how many millions of Americans need legal help but cannot afford it and receive no help. Detailed information can be found from the federal Legal Services Corporation at lsc.gov.

Practicing lawyers donate millions of dollars’ worth of pro bono hours. Both the federal government and our state government appropriate millions of dollars for legal aid. The commission, supported by the State Bar of Texas, has raised over $4.8 million for legal aid for veterans in an annual veterans gala.

Still only about 10% of those in need of legal help are represented by lawyers.

The Texas Supreme Court is a national leader in striving to make access available to all. Shortly after I became chair, we hired a brilliantly able executive director, Trish McAllister, with many years’ experience representing people who could not afford lawyers. The commissioners and staff are able and dedicated people who believe in the importance of their work. Working with the court and the commission is inspiring. I have found helping people have a fair opportunity to access to justice some of the most rewarding work I have ever done.

The commission has sought to enhance the ability of pro se litigants unable to obtain a lawyer to better represent themselves through the use of Supreme Court-approved forms and to gain limited access to legal representation by educating the public and the bar about limited scope representation. It has also promoted rule changes to make courts more accessible to pro se litigants and to waive court costs for indigents.

However, it is clear that if we wish to honor our “justice for all” pledge of allegiance, we need to make our society aware of the terrible cost of the lack of access to justice. For example, many victims of domestic abuse cannot escape without the legal help necessary to obtain protective orders and child support. Families whose only asset is their home lose it because title is not cleared on the death of the title holder. With no legitimate basis, veterans can be deprived of treatment for PTSD or denied funds to make their homes livable in spite of crippling battle wounds.

A majority of lawyers need to be informed of the terrible impact of having no realistic way to seek justice. The need for access to justice should be taught in law schools and on the bar exam. It needs to be taught in civics classes in high schools. Charitable foundations and chambers of commerce should be made aware of the impact of no access to justice.

Only if we have society informed of the great need and terrible cost of lack of access to justice can we honor our pledge of allegiance: “and justice for all.”

HARRY REASONER is the former chair of the Texas Access to Justice Commission and is a partner in Vinson & Elkins in Houston. His practice includes appellate law and complex commercial litigation.

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