For the poor in New Jersey facing civil legal problems, getting a lawyer has become harder and harder. And it will only get worse under the proposed state budget.
Legal experts call the disparity in the ability of the poor to obtain a lawyer for civil cases the "justice gap."
One in three poor people has a civil legal problem every year, but only one of five is fortunate enough to have access to a lawyer, according to Legal Services of New Jersey.
Some are unaware that legal assistance is even available in civil cases, which can involve pressing issues affecting employment, housing, and families.
Legal Services lawyers provide pro bono legal help annually to thousands of destitute clients across the state who cannot afford a lawyer. They handle cases where legal representation can make a world of difference in the outcome.
Unfortunately, faced with another possible funding cut, the nonprofit could be forced to lay off more staff and turn away more clients at a time when demand has increased.
The budget proposed by Gov. Christie includes a nearly $10 million funding cut for Legal Services. That would be the second cut of that size in two years. Federal funding for Legal Services could also be in jeopardy.
A proposal to increase court-filing fees to generate $8 million for Legal Services has merit and should be explored.
In the past, Legal Services has also relied on funding generated by interest on the agency's trust accounts, which receive charitable donations. But those donations have declined sharply, largely due to the economy. In 2010, Legal Services received only $8.9 million from those accounts, compared with $40 million in 2007.
Ironically, the sluggish economy has also made more people eligible for free legal services.
With more foreclosures, evictions, and domestic-violence cases, never has the need been greater for Legal Services.
About two-thirds of the 200,000 people who seek help from Legal Services are turned away because of its inadequate resources and fewer lawyers on staff. Those without legal representation are less likely to receive justice. Their inexperience with the legal system can also bog down court procedures and cause a logjam.
The state must find a way to provide the poor with an advocate in court in civil cases. It's a matter of fairness.