BY TOM HESTER
NEW JERSEY NEWSROOM
Stung by numbing financial loses stemming from the bad economy, Legal Services of New Jersey is being forced to decide which cases it can accept and which ones it must ignore in its effort to represent the poor in court.
"Selecting cases is becoming even more and absurd and unfathomable,'' Melville D. Miller Jr., Legal Services' president and general counsel, told the Assembly Budget Committee at a hearing in Trenton yesterday. "As an example of the absurd choices, for every foreclosure case we could do, we could do (try to prevent) fifty evictions.''Miller and retired state Supreme Court Justice James H. Coleman, Legal Services' chairman, told the committee that the Interest On Lawyers Trust Funds Account, the main source of funding for Legal Services, is expected to provide $3 million this year, down from $40 in 2007, a crash that is helping to fuel a $16.9 million budget deficit. They blamed the economy for the trust fund's nosedive.
The financial problems come at a time when Legal Services is attempting to represent more poor New Jerseyans as they face such problems as foreclosure, eviction, loss of utility services, and domestic abuse. Last year, the non-profit agency's attorneys handled a record 67,000 cases, 4,000 more than the year before. At the same time, the fiscal squeeze has forced the agency to leave vacant 30 lawyer and 50 staff positions. Miller said Legal Services could be forced to close some of the offices it maintains in every county.
"While IOLTA (the trust fund account) as a funding source undoubtedly will come back and rebuild at some point, in the meantime Legal Services urgently needs both continuation of its currently $29.6 million (state) appropriation and additional funding of $16.9 million in the next state appropriation to fill the gap,'' Miller said.
In a summary Miller and Coleman presented to the committee they stated, "The numbers of new poor have soared, as those who live paycheck-to-paycheck have lost jobs and suddenly found themselves without income. The number of requests for help – the legal problems – have increased dramatically. The tenor of those problems – matters of basic housing, food, income and physical security – have grown increasingly grave.''