Poor people lack civil legal assistance

Posted: June 20, 2012

The poor in New Jersey aren't getting the help they need to handle civil legal problems.

The justice gap is widening for hundreds of thousands of low-income adults who live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line and need a lawyer but cannot afford one, according to a new study by Legal Services of New Jersey.

In the past, Legal Services lawyers provided pro bono legal assistance to destitute clients across the state. The lawyers typically handle cases where legal representation can make a world of difference in the outcome — including domestic violence cases, foreclosures, evictions, and child guardianship matters.

But faced with drastic budget cuts, declining donations, and fewer lawyers, the nonprofit has been forced to turn away more clients, even as the demand for its help has increased.

In 2011, Legal Services opened 56,247 new cases, compared with 62,000 in 2010.

The disparity means that for every six poor people with a civil legal problem every year, only one of them was fortunate enough to have access to a lawyer and get varied degrees of legal help, according to the study.

The remaining 400,000 poor people were left to fend for themselves and were less likely to receive justice, even if they had a solid case in their favor. The situation will likely only get worse since the economy has made more people eligible for free civil legal services.

A proposal to increase court filing fees to generate $10 million for Legal Services is a good idea that should be passed by the Legislature. But that is just a start.

The legal community also must do its part by providing significantly more volunteer work and setting priorities for handling pro bono cases. The state's organized bar should lead the charge to secure justice for all.

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