By: Maria Hibbard
Grasping the degree of disparity in access to civil legal aid is something that is a little hard for me to wrap my head around at this point in my legal career; although Legal Services of New Jersey has made it a little easier with the release of the report “New Jersey’s Civil Legal Assistance Gap,” the statistics are not at all comforting. New Jersey Today reports that because of funding cuts, the staff of Legal Services of New Jersey, the statewide legal assistance organization, is increasingly unable to handle the demand for legal services, and these issues are compounded by both an increase in poverty and an increase in legal problems throughout the state. Among other statistics:
- Legal Services staff has decreased from 720 attorneys in 2007 to a staff of 415 at the beginning of 2012.
- The loss of these attorneys has decreased the amount of new cases the organization is able to take by over 10,000.
- Although 1 in 3 people below 200% of the federal poverty level have at least one civil legal aid problem per year, nearly four out of five people did not have the help of a lawyer in solving these problems.
- Data from New Jersey state courts indicates that between 90-99% of defendants in tenancy, small claims, and foreclosure cases proceeded unrepresented, and a great part of these cases resulted in defaults because the defendant did not show up to a hearing.
The idea that civil legal problems are this prevalent–and this underrepresented–is especially documented in the New Jersey study. Even though 75% of people in poverty do not seek the help of a lawyer for their legal problems, 2/3 of those who do in New Jersey are turned away. The report did highlight a number of individuals who have been helped by civil legal services or pro bono attorneys in New Jersey, however–these stories help confirm the idea that civil aid is crucial in helping to protect real legal issues:
- Legal Services of Jersey helped Scott Morell, a long time worker in construction and other physical-labor jobs, secure social security disability benefits once he could no longer work–the $1400 a month he receives now gives him much more breathing room than the $210 was originally receiving.
- Rhonda Taylor was referred to a pro bono attorney by Legal Services to help settle her child custody case when her ex-husband filed for custody of one child after their divorce.
- Akavar Dylutra, a former corporate worker who fell into depression and financial distress after he was downsized, was able to apply for disability benefits through the help of civil legal aid services while he got back on his feet.
The end of the report highlights a number of exterior realities in the legal world that interfere with access to legal aid services and pro bono attorneys–associates at big firms working long hours with little time left for volunteer work, solo practitioners struggling financially in the recession, and complicated court proceedings, among others–but it also includes a number of calls to action and concrete steps to improve access to civil legal aid even a little, in the face of funding cuts. Essentially, the report isn’t comforting, but it is what is, and New Jersey Legal Services highlights what can be done about it.