We often hear about achievement gaps and income gaps, but a new commission in Texas is tasked to address a “justice gap.” They warn that a growing number of people make too much money to qualify for legal aid but aren’t wealthy enough to afford legal services on their own.
Wallace Jefferson, a former state Supreme Court Chief Justice, is leading the commission to expand civil legal services. He says it’s been a long-standing problem because of the rates lawyers charge.
“This has been true for decades,” he says. “I think the problem is getting worse, as the gap between the wealthy and the poor has increased.”
The task force will make recommendations to address the issue, especially in civil courts. Jefferson offers the example of a victim of domestic violence, who needs a lawyer to secure a restraining order against her husband.
“This is a woman who has never been to court before and doesn’t understand the legal system,” he says. “She doesn’t know what to do.”
Jefferson says if that same woman makes around $25,000 a year, she’s “paid too much” to qualify for legal aid. A lawyer who may be able to help her could ask for a $10,000 retainer to take the case and $500 an hour after that, for his services.
“Now this woman cannot afford that lawyer, so what does she do?” he says. “What does she do?”
He says the same situation can happen with a child who has been arrested. A parent has to take off work to accompany the child to juvenile court.
“You don’t get counsel for cases like this,” he says. “The consequences of some sort of adverse disciplinary action are severe, but you can’t find a lawyer who will take your case.”
Jefferson says these kinds of people have few options.
“Usually these people go it alone,” he says. “And when they do, they very often lose rights that a lawyer could have helped them secure.”
Jefferson says he hopes the commission will be “visionary” with ways to address the problem. They have looked at other states’ options, like “unbundling” legal services. This means that lawyers could offer advice before hearings or at specific points during the court case, rather than being retained for the full scope of the case, from pre-trial to a possible appeal.
“For a smaller fee, a lawyer can advise you,” Jefferson says.
Another option, Jefferson says, is self-help centers in the courthouse itself, which are offered in some Texas counties.
“So that when you walk into a courthouse without a lawyer,” he says, “there is a place you can go that can guide you through the process.”