Legislation advances to fund Legal Services, modernize courts

Legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Peter Barnes that would provide a new sources of funding for Legal Services throughout New Jersey and help modernize our antiquated courts has passed two Assembly committees with bipartisan support in the last week.

The bill increases user fees in the court system for three main objectives: providing funding to set up an electronic filing system in the New Jersey courts (for which New Jersey is only 15 years behind the federal courts, which started implementing e-filing back in 1996); providing funding for court-related services such as the Victims of Crime Compensation Office; and most importantly, funding Legal Services throughout the state, which has taken a huge funding cut in Gov. Christie’s budgets, through line item veto of significantly greater appropriations by the Legislature.

Indeed, Legal Services of New Jersey head Melville D. “De” Miller, Jr., testified on Monday before the Assembly Appropriations Committee alongside former Chief Justice Deborah Poritz (in a rare appearance of a former Supreme Court justice before the Legislature, remarked upon by committee chair John Burzichelli) about the impact of Christie’s budget cuts as you can watch below (thanks to deciminyan’s unparalleled State House coverage):

Miller’s testimony was striking: they’ve had to lay off nearly half of their staff, and only 1 in 6 lower income New Jerseyans who would qualify for legal representation actually can get it through Legal Services. It’s scary to think, in tough economic times, of how many people risk losing their homes or going through other important legal proceedings without any legal help because of these cuts. Lots more on that subject here.

More after the jump.

The bar association, represented by its President Susan Feeney, in contrast opposed the bill:

They argued that the courts and Legal Services should be funded from broad budget support and not fees on litigants (who lawyers pass the fees onto).

Chief Justice Poritz responded to that argument with a very compelling one: that the e-filing would actually result in lower costs, because lawyers also pay (and charge clients for) copying lots of copies of their filings which they wouldn’t have to anymore. She also mentioned that the Bar Association had previously supported some fee increases (unclear why this one was different).

The bill passed with bipartisan support, with only Assemblywoman Allison Littell McHose voting against. Perhaps that is a portent for Gov. Christie signing it.

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