The State of Access
to Justice in Texas

While much has been accomplished,
much remains to be done.

Written by Deborah Hankinson and Harry M. Reasoner

We might not know the pain of finding an eviction notice on our door, but as judges and lawyers, we know firsthand the value of quality legal representation and why representation matters when the disadvantaged seek access to the justice system. A recent study by the Legal Services Corporation, or LSC, shows that low-income Americans received no or inadequate legal assistance for 92% of the civil legal problems they faced.1 As lawyers, we have a professional responsibility to help others gain access to the justice system to protect their rights, their freedom, their homes, their livelihoods, and their families.

All Texans, regardless of their income, deserve fair and equitable access to our justice system. Yet, thousands of struggling Texans who face challenges in their everyday lives and in emergency situations encounter barriers when they seek to access our courts. To help them navigate these barriers, increased access to basic civil legal services and improvements to the justice system are needed.

Helping struggling Texans with civil legal needs not only improves their lives and their families’ lives, but it also makes fiscal sense and is a good investment. Everyone benefits when Texans remain housed, domestic violence survivors are safe and thriving, and veterans receive the benefits they earned. Ensuring that Texans have access to justice facilitates self-sufficiency and ultimately lessens the need for taxpayer support.

To increase access to justice for those less fortunate, the Texas Supreme Court created the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, or TAJF, in 1984 and the Texas Access to Justice Commission, or TAJC, in 2001.


Legal Aid Delivery in Texas

Nearly 5.2 million Texans qualified for legal aid before the pandemic. Legal aid programs provide basic civil legal services that address issues of safety, stability, and shelter. To qualify for most civil legal aid programs, income must be at or below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines, which means that an individual cannot earn more than $16,988 per year and a family of four not more than $34,688 annually.

In Texas, the legal aid delivery system includes three programs that together cover the entire state, provide a wide range of basic civil legal services, and are federally funded by the LSC. The LSC programs are: Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, Lone Star Legal Aid, and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. The delivery system also includes law school clinics, local bar association pro bono programs, and programs advocating on behalf of specific populations, such as the elderly, domestic-violence survivors, persons with disabilities, and veterans. Legal aid programs leverage fellows, interns, and law students to increase their capacity to reach those in need of services in underserved areas.

The pandemic exacerbated the need for basic civil legal services. The 36 legal aid programs funded by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation responded to the challenge and remained available to their clients by implementing remote legal aid services, virtual client-intake procedures, and remote clinics. While some programs are now once again providing in-person services and outreach, others will continue to provide virtual services.

The foundation obtained and leveraged federal funds for housing issues plaguing Texans during the pandemic. With support from the Office of Court Administration and the Texas Supreme Court, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs contracted with TAJF to disperse $20 million of Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds for legal services. These services include providing housing-stability clinics, eviction defense, and help accessing rental assistance.

Still, many Texans go without the essential legal help they need. Legal aid programs assist more than 100,000 Texas families each year but there are simply more Texans in need than resources available. Texas ranks 44th in the nation in access to legal aid lawyers with only 0.6 legal aid lawyers for every 10,000 Texans who qualify.2


Reducing Barriers to the Court System

The TAJC works to address barriers to the court system that impact low-income Texans. During the pandemic, it developed best practices for courts and guides for self-represented litigants to use in virtual hearings. It worked with legal aid providers, landlords, debt collectors, and judges to develop guidance for justice courts on the emergency orders issued by the Texas Supreme Court and was instrumental in drafting language on emergency orders regarding evictions, family law, and debt cases. In partnership with stakeholders, it provided information on the impact of virtual hearings on self-represented litigants and drafted rules and policies on remote hearings that address accessibility issues for people with disabilities, limited English proficiency, or limited technology.

The commission also works on core issues affecting access to courts, including helping self-represented litigants navigate the court system by developing standardized forms for landlord-tenant matters, probate proceedings, and protective orders, and addressing the waiver of filing fees and other court costs pursuant to Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 145 to improve the ability of low-income Texans to access the courts. The commission continues to work closely with legal aid providers, courts, and counties to tackle language access issues.


Increasing Funding and Resources

The TAJF is the leading funding source for legal aid in Texas. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, it was created in 1984 to implement the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts, or IOLTA, program. It has since diversified its funding sources to including federal and state funding and private and philanthropic donations and has distributed more than $900 million in grant funding since its creation.

The Texas Supreme Court, the Texas Legislature, and Texas lawyers have also helped fill the gap in funding for essential legal services and increasing access to justice for all. Through a tremendous show of bipartisan support and the outstanding efforts of the court, the Texas Legislature has appropriated funding for basic civil legal services, legal services for survivors of sexual assault, and legal aid for veterans in the past few Texas legislative sessions. Legal aid has also obtained and leveraged federal funding, particularly for housing issues, during the pandemic.

Texas lawyers have consistently done their part. In 2019, Texas lawyers provided over 2.48 million hours in free legal services to working Texans and more than 1.74 million hours in reduced-fee legal services.3 Additionally, attorneys provide millions of dollars in private donations through the Champions of Justice Society, an annual gala benefiting veterans, access to justice contributions on the dues statement, local bar associations, and legal aid programs.

The pandemic exacerbated the need for civil legal services and strained available resources. For example, interest rates were in the double digits when the IOLTA program was devised in the 1980s to help fund legal aid. This funding source has been dramatically impacted by the 2020 cut in interest rates. IOLTA funding has declined by nearly 44% since the pandemic began. Texas lawyers can help mitigate some of this devastating loss by placing their IOLTA accounts at Prime Partner banks and credit unions. Prime Partners agree to pay higher interest rates on IOLTA accounts, generating more funding for legal aid. A list of Prime Partners can be found at

Other ways attorneys can help increase access to justice include volunteering their skills and time at a local pro bono program or financially supporting legal aid through event sponsorships, making the access to justice contribution on their annual bar dues statement, or donating directly to their legal aid program of choice. Lawyers can also provide leadership in pro bono organizations or consider naming legal aid as a cy pres recipient in their next class-action case.

The access to justice gap is vast and Texas lawyers alone cannot solve the problem. It is time to educate the public about the issue, develop civics classes, and involve more private foundations, chambers of commerce, and other organizations that value access to justice.

The Texas Supreme Court, the Texas Legislature, the State Bar of Texas, the Access to Justice Commission, the Access to Justice Foundation, Texas lawyers, and other access to justice stakeholders remain committed to supporting legal aid work in Texas and finding additional ways to support access to justice efforts now and in the future.

While much has been accomplished, much remains to be done. Please send us your thoughts on improving access to justice in Texas at and donate at


1. Legal Services Corporation, (April 2022). The justice gap: measuring the unmet civil legal needs of low-income Americans.
2. The Justice Index, 2021 edition, National Center for Access to Justice. The national average is .97 legal aid lawyers for every 10,000 poor.
3. 2019 Pro Bono Report, State Bar of Texas Department of Research and Analysis, December 2020.

is a retired Texas Supreme Court justice and the chair of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.

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

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