TLSC was formed in 1977 to facilitate communications between Legal Aid programs and to work on client issues of statewide concern. TLSC’s early efforts included policy advocacy coupled with limited litigation assistance in significant federal cases.
In its early years, during the 1980s, TLSC worked through task forces to expand clients’ rights in Texas Employment Commission appeals and to improve our state’s administration of public benefits programs. TLSC lawyers served as co-council in the Lelsz and RAJ lawsuits, which resulted in expanded services in state-supported learning center schools and mental hospitals. Those lawsuits served as catalysts for policymakers to move MHMR services from institutions into community settings.
TLSC has also served as a counsel in lawsuits protecting the rights of pretrial inmates in county jails. In 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.
In 1989, TLSC responded to the unmet needs of the elderly poor by establishing the Legal Hotline for Texans. With funding from AARP, the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS), and the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, the Legal Hotline has provided individualized advice and counseling by attorneys to clients in over 120,000 cases. Based on TLSC demonstrated success with the telephonic delivery of legal services model, similar hotlines have been established throughout the United States.
The provision of training and statewide publications has been a primary part of TLSC’s state support mission. TLSC has provided training in poverty law issues for attorneys, paralegals, pro bono lawyers, support staff, and local board members. It has worked with the Texas Clients Counsel to co-sponsor community education conferences to inform Texans of their legal rights.
TLSC has taken the lead in technology by providing online training and by supporting websites with legal resources for advocates and clients. Additionally, TLSC created online discussion groups for all Legal Aid staff and specialized legal services task forces.
With support from IOLTA, TLSC has significantly improved the availability of litigation assistance to regional Legal Aid offices. Experienced attorneys, with law student assistance, are available to complete legislative research, to assist in the agency negotiations, and to serve as co-council in cases of significant impact. TLSC also files friend of court (“amicus”) briefs when permitted by courts and useful to advance the interests of TLSC’s target populations.
TLSC staff work to facilitate information sharing between advocates through statewide task forces. These task forces include: health law, housing and consumer law, public benefits law, and family law, in tandem with the State Bar’s Legal Access Division, TLSC’s senior advocates prepare legal updates, training, and publications to address recurring poverty law legal issues affecting low-income Texans.
In 1996, TLSC entered a strategic partnership with the Community Action Network to represent clients in achieving access to energy efficiency programs and affordable utility rates. TLSC has worked with client advocates and policymakers to design electric and telephone bill payment programs that have provided over $1 billion in benefits to low-income Texans.
TLSC’s lawyers have taken a lead role in accepting major cases involving challenges to actions taken by state and federal agencies. Working with local programs, TLSC’s Deputy Director Bruce Bower has litigated SNAP delays in approvals of food stamp eligibility determinations, has challenged interpretations of Medicaid eligibility requirements and worked to reform unemployment compensation hearing procedures.
TLSC has strengthened partnership programs with the Texas Department on Aging (now DADS). In partnership with DADS, the Texas Department of Insurance, Area Agencies on Aging, and the Senior Medicare Patrol, TLSC’s lawyers proudly train benefits counselors to meet certification requirements for the Benefits Counseling Network within local area agencies on aging. TLSC secured the enactment of Texas Government Code §81.1011, which allows specially-trained benefits counselors to prepare advance directives, without violating unauthorized practice of law prohibitions. TLSC is the provider of this specialty training.
The Legal Hotline for Texans and the Health Law Program share the work of providing case-specific backup and support to the benefits counselors and Long-Term Care Ombudsman, in Texas’ 28 Area Agencies on Aging.
TLSC has worked with benefits counselors and advocates to improve access to little-known programs that assist low-income persons with Medicare co-payments and deductibles. 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 and the federal government, TLSC created self-help materials for persons who need assistance in securing benefits under company-sponsored pension programs. The South Central Pension Rights Project lawyers and investigators secured over $1 million earned pension benefits for seniors who otherwise would live their final years in poverty.
TLSC staff also led efforts to establish the Partnership for Legal Access, which provides online self-help legal information to low-income Texans. In collaboration with the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, the State Bar, 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.
TLSC developed specialized programs for persons who have been victims of natural disasters, as well as persons needing assistance to indigent health care. TLSC’s Disaster Legal Assistance Project helped thousands of families who faced disasters in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike.
The Texas Health Law Program provides help to families in matters of Medicare and Medicaid appeals, bill payment problems, and the denial of access to health services. The Health Law Program also assists low-income families with the “Authorization Agreement” under Chapter 34 of the Family Code, thus allowing children in “kincare” households to access healthcare, education, and other important services. TLSC’s Medical-Legal Partnership program works with the People’s Community Clinic to ensure holistic healthcare to its patients by providing priority services and reduce the need for costly emergency room treatments.
Responding to the growing number of persons who have been victimized by identity theft, 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.
Responding to victims of sexual assault, TLSC partners with the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault to provide priority legal assistance to survivors. Hundreds of women and men have been helped with sexual assault protective orders, privacy and safety issues, and related legal concerns.
Recognizing the significant legal needs of veterans, TLSC teamed up with the Texas Veterans Commission and the Texas Access to Justice Foundation to provide specialized legal assistance to veterans who have served our country. TLSC’s Veterans Legal Assistance Program coordinates with local veterans’ services offices, and veterans’ organizations to ensure that the applications for benefits and healthcare are timely reviewed and approved.
TLSC’s leadership has worked 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. State funding now ensures that legal services are more widely available on a statewide basis. However, only 1 in 5 eligible Texans can be helped by local Legal Aid offices. With improvements and statewide communications, TLSC annually provides legal information to over one million Texans through the website TexasLawHelp.org.
From its inception in 1977, TLSC has grown to fill important gaps in the civil justice community. We are proud of our many successes, but we also recognize that much remains to be accomplished.