Legal Services of New Jersey says in a new report that at the very time its funding has been reduced, forcing layoffs and diminution of resources, the demand for its services is growing due to increasing poverty in the state.
As a result, state residents living in poverty can get assistance for 1 in 10 of their legal problems, compared to1 in 9 in 2007, according to the report, "New Jersey's Civil Legal Assistance Gap," released on Sunday.
The report comes as the Legislature is considering a bill to increase Superior Court filing fees and give $10 million of that additional revenue to LSNJ. At present, the agency's total annual budget is $44.5 million.
According to census figures cited in the report, New Jersey's poverty rate has risen from 8.7 percent in 2008 to 9.4 percent in 2009 and 10.3 percent in 2010, the most recent data available.
Meanwhile, LSNJ staffing went from 720 in 2007 to 490 at the beginning of 2011 and 415 at the start of this year. That includes a loss of 130 attorneys.
With fewer staffers, the number of low-income people assisted by LSNJ has fallen. New cases dropped from a high of 69,313 in 2009 to 62,000 in 2010 and 56,247 last year, with another decline likely by the end of this year.
LSNJ's three main income sources have been cut in recent years. The Legislature's appropriation dropped from $29.6 million in 2007 to $19.9 million last year; Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program revenue fell from $40 million to $7 million in that time frame; and congressional funding of the national Legal Services Corp., which funds LSNJ, was slashed from $7.6 million in 2009 to $6 million this year.
In the 2010-11 court term, 99 percent of 171,546 defendants in landlord-tenant disputes were unrepresented.In addition, 17 percent of defendants in general equity matters, about half of which involved foreclosures, were without lawyers.
LSNJ President Melville Miller Jr. says failure to close the gap creates problems on several levels. "The inability to afford a lawyer or get legal help too often determines whether a family is evicted from an apartment, if a home is foreclosed, if an ailing man gets disability benefits, or even if child custody payments are sufficient to feed and clothe the children of a broken home," he says.
The report outlines steps Legal Services will take in coming years to ensure representation for the poor: