As New Jersey state aid and other sources of operating funds dry up, regional legal services offices -- which handle the bulk of noncriminal counseling for New Jersey's poor -- are in retrenchment, and several are handing out scores of pink slips.
Aug. 6 was the last day for 18 of the 88 workers at Northeast New Jersey Legal Services, and six attorneys were among the casualties.
Eight of the 49 employees at Northwest Jersey Legal Services will be leaving Sept. 30.
At Ocean-Monmouth Legal Services, 23 out of 52 employees were let go over the last four months.
And at South Jersey Legal Services, 27 of its staff of 95 may be gone by the year's end, according to press reports.
Legal Services of New Jersey, of which the regional offices are affiliates, expects that further layoffs will follow. "Precisely how many more and when is all going to be a function of what happens in the next state budget," says LSNJ President Melville Miller Jr.
Miller says he has asked the six regional legal-services affiliates to update him on staffing issues, but that report will not be ready until next month.
The executive directors of the two other regional offices -- Paul Mullin of Central Jersey Legal Services, which covers Mercer, Middlesex and Union counties, and Felipe Chavana of Essex-Newark Legal Services -- did not return a reporter's calls. In April, Chavana told the New Jersey Law Journal that his agency did not expect to lay anyone off because four lawyers had resigned recently.
But staff cuts, where they occur, have forced the regional offices to accept fewer cases and also to reevaluate client-eligibility guidelines, which means many indigents will find themselves without free legal assistance.
Historically, Northeast New Jersey Legal Services has served people living within 200 percent of the poverty line, but that may be lowered to 150 or 125 percent, says executive director John Fitzgerald. The agency has decided to stop appearing in rent control disputes, utility shut-off cases and matters involving the Division of Youth and Family Services.
"There are whole groups of people where we simply say, 'I'm sorry, I can't help you,'" says Fitzgerald.
Other hard choices are being contemplated, such as dropping plaintiffs' work in divorce cases. And in certain types of cases, such as landlord-tenant, the office advises parties appearing pro se, rather than representing them. Going pro se is a viable option in certain circumstances, such as an uncontested divorce, but it's not for everyone, particularly those agency clients who don't speak English, says Fitzgerald.
The recent layoffs at his agency, which serves Bergen, Hudson and Passaic counties, follow an earlier round in March, when seven attorneys and four staffers were let go. From 110 employees at the beginning of the year, the staff is down to 70, including 33 lawyers.
At Northwest Jersey Legal Services, which serves Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset, Sussex and Warren counties, four attorneys and four others were notified in July that they are losing their jobs on Sept. 30, says the office's executive committee president, Thomas Welchman, a Raritan solo.
His agency is in the midst of a review of how to revise its procedures to cope with fewer staff even as demand for services has increased 12 percent from 2009 to this year, he says.
Heavy staff reductions appear to be in store for South Jersey Legal Services, which covers seven counties. According to an Aug. 3 article in The Press of Atlantic City, the South Jersey office will lay off 27 of 95 employees, including 10 of its 43 lawyers, by year end. The agency's director, Douglas Gershuny, did not return the New Jersey Law Journal's calls.
At Ocean-Monmouth Legal Services, just under half the staff was laid off in small groups, with the final three going into effect Aug. 20, says Executive Director William Rempel.
With its resources spread thin, Ocean-Monmouth has stopped taking most family court cases, which typically require lawyers to make multiple appearances, though it will still take some clients in domestic violence matters, Rempel says. Landlord-tenant work, by contrast, generally requires only one appearance, so Ocean-Monmouth is staying with it.
"We're trying to help as many people as we can with what we have," says Rempel.
But the bloodletting has just begun and there is no reason to be optimistic about funding sources staying at their current levels, let alone increasing.
LSNJ received about $20 million in aid from the state this year, about a third less than last year's $29.6 million, and with the state teetering on the edge of insolvency, additional funding is not an option. Miller has tried for a year to restore the aid to last year's level, but to no avail.
Worse, Legal Services' other major source of money -- Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts -- has run low as the real estate market has shriveled. IOLTA funding for LSNJ topped $40 million in 2007 but is estimated at $8 million for 2010.
LSNJ served 69,000 clients in 2009, but Millers expects the number to decline to 55,000 this year and 45,000 in 2011.
Ocean-Monmouth served 7,300 in 2010 but expects only 4,800 in 2011.
Northeast New Jersey Legal Services served 13,000 clients in 2009 and anticipates 9,000 in 2011.