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Crisis within a crisis: Record-breaking winter storm within the pandemic means civil legal aid must be considered essential
By Nathan L. Hecht
As we approach the first anniversary of pandemic-induced lockdowns, hundreds of thousands of Texans are still grappling with job loss, eviction, or domestic violence stemming from the stay-at-home orders, among other issues. Now, we have just endured one of the worst winter storms on record—plunging millions of Texans into frigid temperatures and darkness due to a days-long loss of power, along with loss of clean water.
The pandemic caused many in our communities to seek out civil legal assistance for the very first time to obtain benefits, home and safety. The added stresses of the winter storm effects mean even more Texans will need help as we work to recover from the costliest natural disaster in our state’s history.
Civil legal aid is an essential resource that ensures all Texans have equal access to the justice system. While legal aid providers are working tirelessly to provide these invaluable services, the need for assistance grows as the economic and health effects from COVID-19 continue and will increase on the heels of the winter storm.
Since March 2020, more than four million Texans filed jobless claims. From 2019 to 2020, TexasLawHelp.org, a statewide legal aid website that provides free legal information, saw an almost 1,500% increase in website traffic for unemployment help. Additionally, the web traffic for eviction help jumped by 185%, and the site saw an increase of 230% for people facing foreclosure.
The increased need for civil legal help became so great that the Texas Supreme Court helped create the Texas Eviction Diversion Program to assist tenants and landlords struggling with paying or collecting rent due to COVID-19. Yet the problem remains. Many Texans are still struggling as they try to decide what bills they are able to pay this month, and what ones they will have to let go past due. To compound the issue, Texans are now facing a crisis within a crisis as they are experiencing food and water insecurity and property loss from the winter storm—on top of the economic hardships inflicted upon them by the pandemic.
Civil legal aid remains essential for Texans facing obstacles beyond unemployment, evictions, and damaged or destroyed property. Veterans who are denied their rightful benefits, elderly who have been refused access to proper medical care, and families that are continually on the verge of homelessness, all depend on the irreplaceable work of the legal aid programs.
To keep these essential organizations and programs running, more funding is critical, especially as a primary source of legal funding—the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program—declined significantly in 2020. In March 2020, just as COVID-19 began to wreak havoc on Texans, interest rates were cut unexpectedly, resulting in a 50% reduction in funds—or about $750,000 per month—in just 13 days.
Legal aid providers are a lifeline for so many Texans in good times, and much more so during a pandemic followed by a natural disaster. While the funding we have received has been critical in doing our job, the need remains as the wave of economic emergencies from the pandemic has yet to subside, and the fallout will be felt for years to come. It is because of this most unprecedented time in our history, the Texas Supreme Court is requesting additional funding because of the dire need for assistance.
All Texans deserve access to basic civil legal services. Helping Texans obtain assistance with civil legal needs is a bipartisan, good government issue. Families deserve help when facing eviction, veterans deserve access to benefits, children and mothers deserve safety from abusive situations, and Texans deserve assistance when their homes have been damaged due to a major disaster. On behalf of the Texas Supreme Court and our civil legal aid providers, I thank those who recognize and prioritize this right and ask that you remain committed in ensuring access to justice for all.
Nathan Hecht is chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court and a U.S. Navy veteran.