Debbie Salinas Valdez of the advocacy group Guardianship Reform Advocates for the Disabled and Elderly said that no one watches what attorneys ad litem do in a case, and fees can climb to hundreds of thousands.
Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said that, last year, reports showed that attorneys ad litem received nearly $26 million, but they probably received much more. A 1994 Texas Supreme Court rule requires clerks to report payments monthly, but only 40 percent of clerks filed reports in 2014. Senate Bill 1369 aims to increase compliance by writing the high court's rule into law, Zaffirini told members of the Senate State Affairs Committee on March 30.
Judges appoint attorneys ad litem to represent people who cannot represent themselves, such as children, the elderly or disabled people.
SB 1369 is a work in progress, and Zaffirini said she plans to introduce a new version later. She explained that the current draft would require clerks to issue an annual report showing payments and the name of the judge who appointed an attorney ad litem, the date of orders approving payments and the style of each case involved. If a clerk failed to issue the annual report, a court would face the consequence of losing its eligibility for state grant money.
Debbie Salinas Valdez of the advocacy group Guardianship Reform Advocates for the Disabled and Elderly said that no one watches what attorneys ad litem do in a case. Many times, attorney fees climb to hundreds of thousands of dollars, she said.
"We see in certain courts, it's the same ad litems, the same guardians who are attached to those ad litems," Valdez said.
Steve Bresnen, a lobbyist for the Texas Family Law Foundation, told committee members that he's convinced that—whether it occurs or not—there is suspicion about abuse among attorneys ad litem. He said the bill should make attorneys ad litem responsible for filing payment reports so that clerks have complete data for their reports. He said that it's easier to find information when public money pays the bill, and harder when the money comes from a private party.
Travis County Probate Judge Guy Herman said that he's concerned the bill might burden judges, who don't have enough staff. He blamed the Supreme Court for the low reporting rate because it's not enforcing its own rule. The high court could get clerks' attention through a letter, he said.
Chambers County Clerk Patty Henry said that she discussed SB 1369 with fellow clerks to find out why compliance rates are so low.
"This is simply an education issue on our part; it's nothing purposeful," Henry said. "Now that we've been made aware of this, we are going to address this issue and make sure that we are compliant."
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Senators Seek Attorney Ad Litem Payment Data