For Immediate Release
Director, Media Relations
Testimony of NJSBA President Susan A. Feeney on Assembly Bill 763
Testimony of NJSBA President Susan A. Feeney
before the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Assembly Bill 763
March 8, 2011, 10:00 AM
Good Morning, Chairman Barnes, Vice Chairwoman Quijano, members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, Chief Justice Poritz, Judge Grant, ladies and gentlemen.
I am Susan A. Feeney, President of the New Jersey State Bar Association.
On behalf of our membership and the clients we serve, I am here today to express our opposition to Assembly Bill 763, which provides for new and increased court and application fees to fund Legal Services of New Jersey and to fund the Judiciary's computerized court information system.
At the outset, I want to remind the committee of our long-standing record of support for funding for Legal Services of New Jersey. Every year we proudly advocate during the budget process at both the state and federal level for enhanced funding for Legal Services. In addition, many of our members volunteer their services annually to represent clients referred by LSNJ on a myriad of issues. I should add that the members of the bar of this State perform many hours of pro bono service through the NJSBA Sections and Committees and various other legal service provider organizations.
Similarly, the NJSBA has long advocated for full funding of the New Jersey courts so that the Judiciary can accomplish its constitutional mission of providing access to justice for New Jersey’s many citizens. And, in 2009 the NJSBA endorsed the expansion of e-filing in the courts on a statewide basis with the caveat that it not be funded by filing fee increases.
The primary purpose of A763 is to facilitate much-needed improvements in the Judiciary’s information technology apparatus. Ambitious plans have been developed to create an electronic court system, or “e-court” that would permit the electronic filing of documents and the digital storage of documents, among other upgrades. We welcome the use, ease and transparency that moving to an e-court system would offer.
However, we cannot support funding court system technology and Legal Services of New Jersey through a mechanism that amounts to a user tax on litigants. This is a user tax because currently only less than half of the judiciary budget is funded by filing fees. We, therefore, must respectfully urge that you vote “NO” on this legislation for several reasons:
First and most importantly, a filing fee increase during these challenging economic times equates to a luxury tax on justice for most of New Jersey’s citizens. Only those who can afford to pay these fees will have their day in court. While Legal Services of New Jersey does what it can with its limited resources, admittedly it can represent no more than one in six of those persons who qualify for and need its services. Five in six people who qualify for representation are left to fend for themselves. Since 2010, the number of people representing themselves in court has increased 150 percent. These and other low and middle income persons who do not qualify for free legal representation, but need representation nonetheless, must bear this fee increase, which they can ill afford. People who are parties in cases in Superior Court, or who seek to record documents, file liens or obtain copies of documents will bear the costs of funding court system technology and legal representation for the poor. Increased court fees will hurt your constituents who need to file for child support, who must secure a divorce, who need to have a matter expunged in order to gain employment, or who face foreclosure. Increasing the cost of entry into the court system will ultimately increase the number of people who are denied justice. For them, the courthouse doors will be closed.
Second, funding for Legal Services of New Jersey and an upgrade in the Judiciary’s technology platform should not rest solely on the users of the court system. Such funding is a public responsibility and should be borne by all New Jerseyans. It is no different than funding our schools. We do not allow senior citizens or families without children to avoid paying property taxes that fund our schools simply because they do not have children attending school.
Third, the NJSBA is concerned with the lengthy list of Executive Branch programs outside of judiciary--$25 million worth--which will also now be funded through these increased fees. Funding the Juvenile Justice Commission, State Police Laboratory Enhancements, and the Victims of Crime Compensation Office have never been funded through court filing fees, and they should not be now.
Finally, the citizens of New Jersey need to understand why--for the first time in state history that I can recall--the Legislative and Executive Branches of government are ceding their authority to increase court filing fees to the judicial branch. Historically, these fee increases have been enacted into law through the legislative process, which serves as an oversight to the court system. You are essentially providing the judiciary with the ability to increase its funding as needed with limited legislative oversight. While we appreciate the fact that the “21st Century Justice Improvement Fund” is a dedicated, non-lapsing fund to ensure that the revenue is utilized only for the purposes previously designated, the existence of this provision alone is inadequate to enable us to support this legislation at this time. We know that funding for Legal Services of New Jersey remains inadequate and no one is clear on the real cost of an e-Court system. It is conceivable that these fees could increase regularly via the court rule process, again with very limited oversight by the Legislative or Executive branches of government.
Shifting the responsibility for maintaining essential state functions to users of the court system will set a dangerous precedent. New Jersey citizens will pay drastically higher fees for the privilege of vindicating their rights in a court of law. And for those who cannot afford it, very likely individuals who are most in need of protection from the courts, justice will be denied.
I, therefore, respectfully urge you to vote “NO” on Assembly Bill 763 and instead work with your leadership to craft a state budget that truly provides adequate funding to meet the essential needs of both the Judiciary and Legal Services of New Jersey, without instituting a user tax on individuals who have a constitutional right to seek justice through our court system.