The task force was chaired by Karen Sacks, executive director of Volunteer Lawyers for Justice in Newark, and Emily Goldberg, the pro bono director at McCarter & English, also in Newark, where Feeney is a partner.
The members were meant to represent key stakeholders: groups like the ACLU-NJ (Jeanne LoCicero) and Partners for Women and Justice (Jane Hanson); companies like Verizon Wireless (Celeste Como) and Merck & Co. (Dianne Pecoraro); the state's three law schools (Rutgers-Camden's Eve Klothen, Rutgers-Newark's Jessica Kitson and Seton Hall's Kevin Kelly) and firms that ranged from Isabel McGinty's solo Hightstown practice to large firms like Roseland's Lowenstein Sandler (Catherine Weiss) and Morristown's Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti (Brenda Liss).
LSNJ was represented by vice presidents and assistant general counsel Kristen Mateo and Akil Roper, each with half a vote.
LSNJ had concerns early on but remained on the task force. After the first meeting, its executive director, Melville Miller Jr., wrote to the task force last October criticizing what he saw as erroneous assumptions -- namely, that a new pro bono support infrastructure was needed; that added funding for pro bono should go to something other than staff who could provide direct legal representation; and that certain kinds of support and coordination for pro bono efforts were lacking in New Jersey.
The report, issued as Feeney was finishing her term, states the task force's unanimous view that more pro bono services are greatly needed and more money must be found to provide them.
How that is to be accomplished is where the disagreement arises.
It is seeking rule changes that would clarify what kinds of pro bono volunteer work qualify for exemption -- established by Madden v. Delran, 126 N.J. 591 (1992) -- from the obligation that private lawyers represent indigent defendants for free in court-appointed cases.
The task force suggests replacing the currently incomplete and scattered information with a new rule broadly defining pro bono service as legal assistance to low-income persons and to nonprofit charitable, religious, civic, community or educational organizations or government entities in matters designed to address low-income needs. The definition would cover law school clinics, civil rights groups and nonprofits "in furtherance of their purposes" where paying legal fees would be inappropriate or onerous.
Pro bono providers would have to be certified -- with exceptions for LSNJ and its regional offices, which would be deemed certified -- and the judiciary would maintain and disseminate a comprehensive list. LSNJ offices would get automatic waiver of court fees and any other group that qualified for the exemption could also seek a waiver.
LSNJ objects that expanding the Madden exemptions to other groups "inevitably would dilute the primary focus" on assisting those of limited means and divert help elsewhere. LSNJ also predicts a significant jump in fee waivers that would shrink court revenues and possibly lead to fee hikes for other litigants. It says more information is needed to assess the impact.