New Jersey State Bar Association - The voluntary Bar Association of New Jersey, serving members since 1899.

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New Report On The Need For Lawyers In Civil Cases For People In Poverty

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Today Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ), coordinator of New Jersey's non-profit system for providing free civil legal assistance to low-income people, released a new report on the extent of the unmet need for such civil legal assistance in the state. Concurrently, LSNJ and the New Jersey State Bar Association announced, also today, a new multi-prong effort to close the "justice gap" in New Jersey, the Access to Justice Initiative.

In releasing the report, "People Without Lawyers: the Continuing Justice Gap in New Jersey," Melville D. Miller Jr., LSNJ president, observed:

"This new report presents data that we find stunning. The heart of the report is an extrapolation of data from the state Administrative Office of the Courts as well as the Department of Human Services Division of Family Development. We looked at several types of cases which typically involve a disproportionate number of low-income people. The findings reveal very high levels of unrepresented people."

The report covers four principal types of civil legal cases:

Family dissolutions (divorces) - of 31,966 resolved cases in Court year 2004, 30 percent had pro se (unrepresented) plaintiffs, and 67 percent had unrepresented defendants (51 percent of these cases were resolved by default).

"Special Civil" matters (small civil cases where the claim is for less than $15,000) not including Small Claims Court (where lawyers are generally not involved) - 95 percent of defendants, who are disproportionately lower income people, were unrepresented for the 246,202 cases resolved in Court year 2005 (76 percent went by default).

Landlord-tenant cases, again disproportionately involving lower income people - 99 percent of defendants were unrepresented for the 163,733 cases resolved in Court year 2005 (43 percent went by default).

Welfare fair hearings (agency proceedings in which low-income people challenge denial, reduction, suspension or termination of welfare - 95 percent of the people were unrepresented for the fiscal year 2004 (out of 6,799 cases).

"Every five years Legal Services does a comprehensive social science study of how many indigent people need lawyers for civil legal problems and cannot get them," Miller explained. "Our last study was three years ago, in October 2002, and we will do another in 2007. The 2002 study revealed that only one out of every six low-income New Jerseyans actually received help from a lawyer for their civil legal problem, a huge justice gap. This interim report takes a different kind of look - at the numbers of people who are unrepresented in court - to assess the practical effect of this justice gap."

"The new LSNJ report demonstrates there still is a civil justice deficiency in New Jersey - a clear shortfall in lawyers for people who need them," said Stuart Hoberman, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association. "A society that promises equal justice under law cannot fail to provide lawyers for those who need and cannot afford them. The Bar has long worked hard to support the efforts of Legal Services and help secure lawyers for people in poverty. We are very concerned about this information and situation. The State Bar Association will join with LSNJ in a new Access to Justice Initiative seeking to: (1) increase public funding for Legal Services; (2) increase private contributions to Legal Services' Campaign for Justice; and (3) attract additional voluntary contributions of time - pro bono services - from New Jersey lawyers."

"The bulk of the public funding unquestionably must come from state and federal government," noted Miller, "and of that the greater burden inevitably must fall upon the state, because the vast majority of disputes and complaints which give rise to the need for lawyers occur in state courts. Nonetheless, the federal government has now begun to recognize that it has to step up its efforts, and private contributions to the Campaign for Justice are also essential."

"The State Bar has long called for voluntary pro bono efforts; we are committeed to equal justice," emphasized Hoberman. "Recently, we have been making the case for voluntary pro bono forcefully with county and local bar associations. Nonetheless, armed with this data, there is more we can do. Legal disputes typically are too complex for most people to succeed without the help of a lawyer."

This latest state report comes on the heels of a new federal study, released just two weeks ago, which measured the "justice gap" nationally, concluding that across the country conservatively one in five were forced to do without an attorney. Miller noted that New Jersey's one in six figure was the result of New Jersey using more careful measurement and survey techniques, not a consequence of having less resources.

"We ask all New Jerseyans to live by a government and system of law, to follow the rules and resolve disputes peacefully," Miller reflected. "This is a hard request to follow - or justify - when so few actually have the attorney they need to get a fair day in court. We must stop rationing justice."

New Jersey's Legal Services system consists of a network of seven not-for-profit corporations serving all 21 counties through 25 offices, with nearly 500 total staff. Last year, Legal Services represented more than 50,000 clients. It assists tens of thousands more annually through its clinics, presentations and publications, and it receives nearly 14,000 hits weekly on its self-help website. The most recent data show 1,763,873 New Jerseyans are eligible for help from Legal Services.

The New Jersey State Bar Association, incorporated in 1899, is dedicated to the continuing education of lawyers and the public, to reforming and improving the legal system and to aiding in the administration of justice.