Filing fees may be going up to help the state courts finance a computerized case management system and contribute to legal services.
Democratic lawmakers have reintroduced legislation, vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie in July, that would create a $27 million 21st Century Justice Improvement Fund dedicated to those purposes.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, introduced S-2207 last Monday, while Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Barnes III introduced A-3308 on Sept. 27.
The bills would give the court seven months to determine what fees to increase.
The first $17 million would be used to fund the court’s e-filing system. The remaining $10 million would be used to supplement funding for Legal Services of New Jersey, which has seen its appropriation from the state decrease steadily in recent years.
Both the court and Legal Services would submit reports to the governor and the Legislature each year. The judiciary would have to demonstrate the progress being made toward the creation and use of the e-court system while Legal Services would have to detail how it is using the money to provide legal assistance to the poor. The additional funding would be subject to oversight by the State Auditor.
The original legislation that was introduced at the beginning of the year also called for an additional $25 million to be raised, for a total of $52 million, to fund 13 court-related programs such as the Juvenile Justice Commission and Court-Appointed Special Advocates.
The State Bar Association opposed that version of the legislation, saying those programs should continue to be paid for through general tax revenues. After the sponsors dropped that part of the legislation, the Bar offered its support.
State Bar spokeswoman Kate Coscarelli says the Board of Trustees has not reviewed this latest legislation, but notes that it mirrors the version that the Bar agreed to support.
State Bar Association President Kevin McCann says he hopes Christie will sign the measure this time since he will be able to consider it alone, not in a package of other spending bills as happened in July.
“This is not taxpayer money being used,” says McCann, of Bridgeton’s Chance & McCann.
The state’s appropriation to Legal Services has fallen from $29.9 million in 2010 to the current $14.9 million. Its funding from the IOLTA Fund of the Bar of New Jersey has dropped from $40.226 million in 2007 to $6.4 million this year. Its current budget, which includes charitable giving, totals $44.5 million.
Legal Services’ president and general counsel, Melville Miller Jr., told legislative committees earlier this year that the agency has been forced to cut its staff from a high of 720 to 415 because of what has become a series of annual cutbacks to its appropriations. Its filings, he said, have been cut from 69,300 in 2009 to 56,200 in 2011 because of staff reductions.
Former Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, now the chairwoman of Legal Services’ board of trustees, says she hopes the legislation will be passed again and, this time, signed into law.
“We strongly support a bill that will provide funds for Legal Services,” says Poritz, now with the Princeton office of Drinker Biddle & Reath. “The cuts have been draconian and dramatic, and Legal Service is facing another round of layoffs because of this.”
A spokesman for the Senate Democrats, Derek Roseman, says: “The Senate president is concerned that the judiciary is missing out on the ability to implement a cost-saving and efficient e-court system while Legal Services remains severely underfunded, effectively limiting access to the courts to many low-income residents. These are vital issues for which he will continue to fight.”
Officials from the governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Barnes’ bill has been assigned to the Assembly Judiciary Committee.