The commission, which is made up of about 25 practicing lawyers, judges and former judges, was formed in 2001 by the Texas Supreme Court with the mandate to increase resources for indigent and low-income Texans and spread the news to the public that help is out there.
The commission's work doesn't touch on criminal matters or immigration, Faith-Slaker told Law360 Pulse.
"A lot of legal aid organizations are not permitted to work on immigration matters and that's through restrictions related to federal funding," Faith-Slaker said. "That falls more to independent nonprofits that don't accept funding from the federal government."
Faith-Slaker said the Texas commission was a leader nationally and, as one of the earliest such groups, it had "really excelled" thanks to both the leadership it enjoys from the state's highest court and from its existence as an arm of the State Bar of Texas.
"Not all commissions are structured that way," Faith-Slaker noted. "Being in this space gives me more momentum to work with [local] bar associations."
The Texas commission's past projects include a 2016 rewrite of procedural rules governing affidavits of indigency, making it easier for low-income Texans to qualify to have court costs waived, according to the commission's website. It created the Texas transfer toolkit, which allows low-asset Texans who have a car, a house and a little money in the bank to transfer those to beneficiaries upon their death outside the probate system, saving family members significant time and money.
The commission recommends legislative changes, provides education to legal aid organizations, and is involved in a number of other projects to increase access to civil justice.
Faith-Slaker brings a bounty of experience to the role. Most recently, she served as the executive director of the Office of Eviction Defense for the city of Detroit, where she implemented a successful right-to-counsel program for eviction cases and worked with local legal aid groups and the courts to serve indigent tenants.
"The reality is that some people are unable to afford an attorney and are going to try to navigate through the system for themselves, and that can be devastating when the person on the other side has an attorney, such as in landlord versus tenant situations," Faith-Slaker said. "That's not what our system was designed for, to have that structural inequality."
Faith-Slaker has also served as an associate director for the Access to Justice Lab at Harvard and as a consultant to the American Bar Association's committee on legal aid and indigent defendants.
"I was working on helping states develop commissions that didn't have them and helping states move their initiatives forward that already had them," she said. "Having a national role in pushing that movement forward was exciting. That's what I think prepared me for this position in particular — I have a deep familiarity with access to justice commissions, how they're structured, what they can do, and what some of the more successful ones have done."
Faith-Slaker said she was currently bulking up her staff to carry out the commission's important work.
Law360 recently caught up with Faith-Slaker to talk about the commission's current projects, its challenges and its goals. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What are the commission's main goals?
Generally speaking, all commissions are tackling the access-to-justice gap. Civil litigants aren't entitled to legal representation like criminal defendants, and legal services can be expensive and out of reach for indigent, low-income or middle-income people. Some of the consequences of a civil justice matter can be really serious for people's lives.
Evictions have been a pretty big topic as housing issues became major during the pandemic, and there are family law issues, custody, debt collection — those are just some of the examples.
Understanding what the problems are and coming up with initiatives to try to address them often involves looking at the issue of funding, so legal aid funding is a key element of the work.
The Texas commission really focuses on issues facing veterans as well.
The commission has over 20 members, but there are smaller working groups that deal with specific topics. They explore it, ask the right questions and gather the materials and right experts to answer those questions. Next comes a proposal for initiatives or policy changes on that topic.
For example, there was a committee working on improving and simplifying forms used by pro se litigants. They're already going to court, they can't afford an attorney and they're trying to navigate a complicated system by themselves, so this committee did a lot of work improving forms used by people going to court pro se.
Can you talk about the commission's exploration of limited-scope representation and paraprofessionals?
There is a working group right now working on access to legal services through limited-scope representation. That involves an attorney doing some of the work on a case, such as preparing the documents and giving some legal advice, while the pro se litigant pays much less than for full representation.
There is also a working group looking into the use of paraprofessionals and non-lawyer ownership of firms that might be able to provide low-cost services. This is especially helpful for middle-income people who can't afford a full-time lawyer but could really benefit from some short-term services.
How important is attorney pro bono work to the commission's goals?
Pro bono is a really important piece of bridging the gap between people who can afford legal services and those who cannot. Part of my role here is to make connections in collaboration with bar associations across Texas to find the best way to engage lawyers in our efforts, and I'm interested in seeing if there is something we can partner on on a bigger scale that might increase effectiveness.
We help lawyers who want to take on full pro bono cases to connect with the right program or project. That's something I'll be working on, getting the word out about the different types of opportunities.
We promote mentorship programs where attorneys who want to do pro bono but aren't really confident about their skills in a particular area can be matched up with a more experienced lawyer. Doing pro bono is a great way to explore other areas of the law. There are others who want to do pro bono work but who can't commit the time so we've come up with shorter-term pro bono opportunities, like the Free Legal Answers page Texas has through the American Bar Association, where people who qualify can ask legal questions and have them answered by a licensed Texas attorney at no charge.
What are some of the biggest challenges in delivering access to justice?
Research has shown that another reason the public doesn't reach out for help with civil justice matters is they don't identify their problems as being legal problems. They see them more as personal or situational, so it doesn't prompt a Google search for "free legal answers" or a legal aid service.
The dots have to be connected. How do we get the word out about these solutions? Awareness is an important first step. People who aren't even self-identifying their problems as legal in the first place present a challenge and a question that the access-to-justice field has yet to solve, but it's an important one.
We're also down to a small but mighty core staff right now, so I'll be doing some hiring to make sure we're able to make my transition to executive director a smooth one, so there is no interruption in the work the commissioners are doing.
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--Editing by Karin Roberts.