Texas Legal Services Center

32 Years of Accomplishments for Low-Income Texans

The following brief history of Legal Services state support in Texas originally appeared in the January 1992 issue of the newsletter, the Alert. It was prepared by Texas Legal Services Center Executive Director Randall Chapman. A graduate of Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, Mr. Chapman practiced law in Legal Services programs in Pennsylvania for ten years prior to his selection as executive director in 1984.

TLSC was established in 1977 by Texas Project Directors to facilitate communications between programs and to work on client issues of statewide concern. Initially, TLSC's efforts were mainly directed at policy advocacy, with limited litigation assistance in significant federal cases.

During the 1980's TLSC worked though Task Forces to expand clients’ rights in TEC appeals and in the administration of TDHS benefit programs. The program served as co-counsel in the Lelsz and RAJ lawsuits, which resulted in expanded services in state schools and state hospitals. Those lawsuits also served as a catalyst for the state's efforts to move MHMR services from institutions into community settings.

TLSC has also served as counsel in lawsuits protecting the rights of pretrial inmates in county jails. In the case of Williamson County, a new prison was constructed and inmates’ rights were greatly expanded. Prison access to a law library was improved and inmates were appointed counsel within 72 hours of detention.

Former TLSC Director Clinton Cross worked with Legal Services programs and the State Bar to help establish Texas Lawyers Care and IOLTA. TLSC’s director Randall Chapman is currently working with the Texas Access to Justice Commission to develop new funding for Legal Aid programs.

Responding to the unmet needs of the elderly poor, TLSC established in 1989 its Legal Hotline for Older Texans. With funding from IOLTA, AARP and the Texas Department on Aging, the Legal Hotline has provided individual advice and counseling by attorneys to clients in over 70,000 cases. Based, on TLSC's success with the telephonic delivery of legal services, similar hotlines have been established throughout the United States.

The provision of training and statewide publications has been a primary part of TLSC's mission in state support. Training assistance has been provided in poverty law issues for attorneys, paralegals, pro bono attorneys, support staff, and local Board members. TLSC has worked with the Texas Clients Council to co-sponsor community education conferences to advise clients of their legal rights. Other community education activities started by TLSC staff include the preparation and distribution of Justice for All calendars to advise clients of their legal rights. When laws changed, or public benefit programs were expanded, TLSC staff prepared flyers and posters for distribution by local programs.

Publications established by the Center include the Alert and the statewide personnel directory. TLSC also published the Attorney Desk Reference Manual that is now updated by Texas Lawyers Care. That manual highlights every routine matter likely to develop in the practice of poverty law. Appendices include sample forms and pleadings, and references to other publications.

With funding from the Texas Bar Foundation, TLSC led the nation in expansion of the electronic communications network, known as HandsNet. Over 60 legal aid and pro bono projects participated in the network and shared information and legal documents throughout the state (see, Harnessing Technology to Help the Poor@ Texas Bar Journal, April 1991). With the development of the Internet, TLSC has taken a lead in technology by providing training, and by supporting lawyer and public web sites with legal resources for advocates and clients. Additionally, TLSC created statewide computer discussion groups (list-serves) for all legal aid staff and for specialized legal services task forces.

With support from IOLTA, TLSC has significantly improved the availability of litigation assistance to field programs. Experienced attorneys, with law student assistance, are available to complete legislative research, to assist in the agency negotiations, and to serve as co-counsel in cases of significant impact.

IOLTA funds are similarly used to facilitate information sharing between advocates through statewide task forces. Task forces include: health law, housing and consumer law, public benefits law, and family law. In tandem with Texas Lawyers Care, TLSC's senior advocates prepare legal updates and research assistance to address recurring legal issues identified by task force members.

Originally, TLSC was established as a specially funded project within Legal Aid Society of Central Texas. In 1982, a separate TLSC Board of Directors was established with LASCT contracting with TLSC to provide statewide support services. Board members included attorney representatives from the 11 LSC funded programs, and client representatives selected by local client board members.

With expansion of state support services in the 1980's, TLSC diversified funding to include IOLTA, Texas Bar Foundation, AARP, Ford Foundation, and the Texas Department on Aging. With that expansion, the TLSC and LASCT governing boards both approved seeking LSC approval for direct funding to TLSC from the Legal Services Corporation. The request was approved in 1992.

Beginning in 1993, LSC began to address the historical freeze funding among support centers that had existed throughout the 1980's. With additional resources, TLSC added a policy advocate position and expanded its statewide publications and training programs for local field staff. With support from the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation (TEAJF), support services were expanded to include all non-LSC legal services providers.

Due to federal funding decisions imposed by Congress, LSC eliminated funding for support centers in 1995. At that time, TLSC lost most of its funding ($635,000) requiring deep cuts in services and staffing. Under the leadership of Texas Tech Dean Frank Newton, key training and publication functions were transferred to Texas Lawyers Care, and funded through the State Bar of Texas.

The transition plan included bridge funding from the Texas Bar Foundation to enable TLSC to focus limited state support resources on legal matters of high importance to large numbers of clients. TLSC’s new emphasis was to provide advocacy, and support litigation in disputes involving decisions by state agencies located in Austin. Priorities included access to public benefits, public health services, and affordable utility programs.

In 1996, TLSC entered a strategic partnership with the community action network of Texas to represent clients in achieving access to energy efficiency programs and affordable utility rates. Through advocacy coordinated with other statewide groups, funding is now available to supplement the federal weatherization assistance program. Similarly, TLSC helped design electric and telephone bill payment programs that have provided approximately $1 billion in benefits to low-income Texans.

Pursuant to the 1995 transition plan, TLSC has taken a lead role in accepting major cases involving challenges to actions taken by state and federal agencies. Working with local programs, TLSC senior staff have litigated emergency food stamp eligibility procedures, and challenged interpretations of Medicare and Medicaid eligibility requirements.

TLSC has also strengthened its partnership programs with the Texas Department on Aging (now DADS). Originally, that state agency funded TLSC to provide general legal assistance for older Texans after an AARP pilot program grant expired. Now TLSC and Legal Hotline staff provide the legal support for the Benefits Counseling Network within the local area agencies on aging. With additional funding, TLSC expanded services to provide legal assistance to family caregivers, including persons under 60 who are providing care for an elderly individual.

In tandem with other advocacy work, TLSC has actively supported community legal education and outreach. Recognizing TLSC's historical work with AARP and grassroots agencies, the U.S. Treasury Department provided TLSC with over $700,000 to provide community based outreach regarding federal payment options for Social Security throughout a nine state region. As a result of litigation by the Texas Civil Rights Project, TLSC received additional community outreach funding in 1999 to establish the Texas Privacy Project to inform low income households regarding their rights to privacy, particularly in matters affecting health care and public benefits.

TLSC has worked with other legal services providers in expanding participation in little known programs that assist low income persons with Medicare co-payments and deductables. TLSC staff have also provided statewide leadership in developing alternative funding sources for legal aid programs and advocated successfully for improved appeal rights for HHSC clients to include the judicial review of public benefit determinations. With support from the Texas Bar Foundation, TLSC created self-help materials for persons who need assistance in securing benefits under company sponsored pension programs.

In 2004, TLSC was recognized through its receipt of a national grant to provide pension counseling assistance in a five state region. Legal staff help callers who have been unfairly denied access to company retirement pensions and health care. Over $750,000 in pension payments have been recovered by staff working in TLSC’s South Central Pension Rights Program.

TLSC staff also led efforts to establish the Partnership for Legal Access that provides web-based self-help legal information to low-income Texans. In collaboration with the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation, Texas Lawyers Care, and the Travis County Law Library, the Partnership assembled self-help materials, web links, and provided training directed to Legal Aid staff and community librarians. The success of the project is has been demonstrated by the numbers: There are 270 legal resources on the statewide website and 351,000 persons visited the website in 2008.

Recognizing the unique needs of persons residing in nursing homes and other institutional facilities, TLSC established the Facility Victims Legal Services Project in 2005. With funding from the Office of Attorney General, direct legal assistance is provided to persons who have been subject to abuse or neglect in those facilities.

Also, in 2005 TLSC established specialized outreach programs for persons who have been victims of natural disasters, as well as persons needing access to indigent health care. The Disaster Legal Assistance Project was created after hurricanes Katrina and Rita and provided legal help for evacuees in areas regarding public benefits, FEMA appeals, relocation problems, and access to utility services. The Project was restored and expanded in 2008-09 to respond to the legal needs of victims of Hurricane Ike.

The Texas Health Law Hotline was started in 2006 to provide assistance in matters regarding access to health care, Medicare appeals, bill payment problems, and the denial of access to services. The program was expanded in 2008 to provide outreach to persons eligible for the Low-Income Subsidy Program that is embedded in the Medicare prescription drug program, known as Medicare Part D.

Responding to the growing number of persons who have been victimized by identity theft, in 2008 TLSC established the first Legal Aid project in the country to provide legal help for victims in restoring their rightful identities and in recovering financial losses.

In 2009, TLSC senior staff are working in partnership with leaders from the Texas Access to Justice Commission and the Texas Access to Justice Foundation to establish new funding for Legal Aid through the Texas Legislature. Responding to the escalating mortgage foreclosure and lending crisis, TLSC added staff in 2009 to inform state policy makers on policy options to implement programs designed to preserve homeownership.

From its inception in 1977, TLSC and our Legal Hotline for Texans have grown to an annual budget level of $2.4 million and staffing of 35 staff members and volunteers. The Legal Hotline has assisted clients in over 120,000 individual cases. Changes advocated by TLSC staff in public benefits and utility service programs have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in savings to families with incomes below federal poverty guidelines. We are proud of our many successes, but we also recognize that much remains to be accomplished.