Legal Aid suffering funding crisis during time of greatest need



TRENTON – The Assembly Judiciary Committee was told Monday that  Legal Services of New Jersey is suffering through a severe funding crisis just when poor residents need its services the most.

LSNJ is a nonprofit group that provides legal representation to poor or underprivileged residents.

LSNJ has been going through a “crisis,” according to Judiciary Committee chairman Peter Barnes (D-18) of Edison, given the vast funding cuts it has seen the last few years and the lack of a consistent funding source.

Since the economic downturn of 2008, the state’s poverty rate increased 8.4 percent and there are currently some 1.9 million residents living in poverty, according to LSNJ President Melville Dee Miller.

“A lot of people are now poor who weren’t poor before,” he said.

During this time when demand for legal services were growing, funding from the state shrunk considerably. Since 2008, the state has seen its funding plummet from $29.6 million to approximately $19.9 million. The fiscal year 2012 budget calls for the same amount.

The funding cuts over the years led to staffing cuts as well (from 720 staffers to 490 now). While LSNJ is still willing to accept civil litigation cases, it has to prioritize which cases it takes first. If funding is not restored, another 75 people could lose their jobs at LSNJ, he said.

Still, officials noted there has been an increase in the number of people representing themselves in court, rarely leading to positive verdicts.

Past clients of LSNJ testified before the committee, telling the committee the legal assistance provided helped them in child custody cases, rental assistance, among other issues.

Miller added the lack of access to legal help could ultimately lead to such social ills as hunger, homelessness, violence, failure in school, and death.

He told the committee very bluntly: “There is no substitute for the need for increased funding.”

To get a consistent legal aid funding source going, officials recommended to the committee such things as increasing fees for court filings, among other fees.

Miller said that for each additional $1 million  it could handle 1,100 cases and 10 staff members.