New Attorneys and Paralegals Give Citizens Options

We know things look bleak right now. There are few bright spots. You wonder if every new possible small light you see is the end of the tunnel…or another train about to run you over.

Which makes what’s happening at the North Texas Legal Aid offices remarkable and worth knowing about.

For the first time in anyone’s memory, there are two attorneys, and at least that many paralegals, specifically dedicated to providing “free legal services, advocacy, and community education to individuals, community groups, and non-profit organizations” working on Environmental Justice issues.

And not just Environmental Justice. Fair and affordable housing, as well as more democratic and equitable community development now have many more local advocates than they did just a few months ago.

In essence, DFW citizens just got their own legal defense fund amped up to 11.

Legal Aid is an independent federal nonprofit established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. As long as you meet the agency’s income criteria, you have access to free legal services and resources (income up to 125% of the U.S. poverty line. In certain cases up to 200%). Both Dallas and Fort Worth have had under-staffed, under-budgeted offices for years, but still managed to do good work.

Representing rural residents of “Cement Valley,” a Dallas Legal Services lawyer, Robert Doggett, was co-counsel in Downwinders’ fight against the TXI hazardous-waste burning permit throughout  the 1990’s. But that kind of direct participation in a high-profile environmental fight has been rare. These fresh hires are looking to change that. 

As part of the newly-funded “Community Revitalization Project,” these attorneys will be providing assistance and education to communities and individuals on how to use the law to ensure fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people—regardless of race, color, national origin, or income—with respect to the government’s development and implementation of environmental policies, as well as the enforcement of environmental laws and regulations against polluters. The objective of CRP is to help ensure that all communities provide the opportunity for residents to live in a clean and healthy environment.” 

In addition, staff will also assist “individuals and communities in developing and maintaining affordable housing, fighting housing discrimination and other illegal housing practices, and meaningfully participating in the development and implementation of policies that affect their neighborhoods. The goal is to help ensure that individuals and communities have equal access to affordable, accessible, and safe housing.” They’ll help to “educate citizens about their right to offer meaningful input on matters affecting their communities. CRP also works with communities to advocate for economic justice, develop fair access to transportation, fight predatory lending practices, and address systemic inequalities commonly found in low-income communities.” 

New lawyers from the Project are landing in other major Texas cities as well. There’s potential to do a lot of good here.

Moreover, the budgets for these new positions are not subject to Presidential, Congressional or state political tantrums. They’re funded for at least the next four years with money from a multi-million dollar settlement from legal claims arising from mortgage-related activities by Bank of America and its subsidiaries.”  

The monies are distributed by a third party, the Texas Access to Justice Foundation. They can’t be messed with. There’s hope of making the Project’s positions and mission permanent after the settlement money runs its course.

The result is a palpable shift in power. While it’s not close to matching the firepower of a government agency legal department or a polluter’s white shoe legal team, the presence of the the Legal Services effort in town means North Texas residents now have access to an extraordinary network of legal help they didn’t have just a few months ago. 

And if our own organizational history tells us anything, it’s that a determined critical mass can make a huge difference against much larger and more powerful opponent.

Tulane graduate Matthew Miller is the Legal Service’s Project’s point person in DFW. His email is:

Don’t be shy. Use your imagination. It doesn’t have have to be a lawsuit. It can be as simple as a Open Records Act request, or sitting in on a meeting with officials. They want to be our legal counsel. Let’s make effective use of this new tool.

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