Legal Services of New Jersey, with the support of the state's judiciary and the State Bar Association, went cap in hand to the Legislature on Monday, asking for an increase in its proposed appropriation for the upcoming fiscal year.
At the same time, Superior Court Judge Glenn Grant, the acting administrative director of the courts, said the judiciary will seek an increase in filing fees -- the first since 2002 -- to help fund Legal Services and to implement its proposed mandatory, system-wide electronic filing program.
The requests were made to the Assembly Judiciary Committee at a special hearing to discuss the financial plight of Legal Services, which has seen its appropriation from the state slashed over the past several years.
Legal Services' overall budget has dropped from $71.5 million in 2007 to $47.6 million last year, said the organization's president and general counsel, Melville Miller. The sharpest drop in its source of funding came from the state. In 2007, the Legislature appropriated $29.6 million in 2007. But last year it appropriated only $19.9 million and Gov. Chris Christie has recommended the same amount for fiscal 2012.
The remainder of Legal Services' funding comes from the national Legal Services Corp., which has had its own funding cut by Congress over the past decades, an ever-decreasing amount from the Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts program -- where revenues have dropped from $40 million in 2007 to $7 million last year -- and from individual donations.
As a result, Legal Services has cut its staff of 720 to 490 from 2007 to now, and if additional funding is not forthcoming, Miller said another 75 staffers will be laid off in this calendar year. And because of the cuts, he said, two out of every three potential clients must be turned away.
"There is a failure to enforce civil laws in this state," Miller told the committee. "There are all sorts of protections for the less powerful in consumer fraud laws, tenancy laws and mortgage foreclosure programs, but if people are not represented, those rights go unenforced."
Grant told the committee that additional funding from the Legislature is essential, especially since the numbers of people representing themselves in court because they cannot afford an attorney are "exploding."
"Our courts are designed with attorney participation in mind," he said. "We are an adversarial-based system."
Grant said the judiciary is still working on its proposed schedule for fee increases, but estimated that it would raise at least $20 million a year. Of that, he said, $8 million would go to Legal Services and the remainder would go toward establishing the e-filing system.
"We must have the support of the Legislature and the administration," Grant said.
Committee Chairman Peter Barnes, D-Middlesex, asked Grant whether the judiciary had approached the administration or the state Bar for their support.
Not yet, Grant replied. "This is still in the design stages," he said. "But we need an indication of support from the both branches of government. We need a stable funding source."
Susan Feeney, the new Bar president, told the committee that it supported an effort to increase funding to Legal Services, while at the same time encouraging more participation in pro bono programs.
Barnes asked Feeney if the Bar would support an increase in filing fees.
"We absolutely will consider any request from Judge Grant," said Feeney, of Newark's McCarter & English."
Retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, the chairwoman of Legal Services' board of trustees, also made a push for an increase in filing fees, noting that most other states facing difficult economic times have increased their filing fees to help pay for indigent legal services.
"One thing is fairly certain. If filing fees are not increased New Jersey will be well below the level of other comparable states in providing funding for legal services," said Poritz, now with the Princeton, N.J., office of Drinker Biddle & Reath.
"This may be a best practice and make a great deal of sense," she said. "Additional help is necessary."
Barnes said it is likely that the Legislature will consider some type of increase in filing fees that would be dedicated to Legal Services and to the e-filing system. However, appropriations from other sources is less likely since Christie already is looking for funds to close a deficit in his proposed $29.4 billion for fiscal 2012.
The administration and the Legislature will learn today whether it will have to find additional funds for the upcoming fiscal year when the Supreme Court has announced it will release its most recent decision in the ongoing Abbott v. Burke school-funding litigation.
The Education Law Center in Newark has asked the Court to order the state to fully fund the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 by adding $1.7 billion in aid to poor, mostly urban, districts.
Officials in the administration did not respond to requests for comment.