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Carl Rauscher
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Funds Decline for New Jersey Programs As Requests for Legal Services Rise

Thursday, November 5, 2009

November 5, 2009

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Washington, DC -- State, local and charitable funding for nonprofit civil legal assistance programs in New Jersey is declining sharply at a time when an increasing number of low-income individuals and families are seeking help with legal problems often exacerbated by the nation's weak economy.

The funding reduction is forcing nonprofit legal aid programs to curtail legal services to the poor in New Jersey, program officials told the Board of Directors of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) at meetings on October 30 in Camden, N.J.

The LSC Board convened its regular quarterly committee meetings in Camden and heard from officials of Legal Services of New Jersey and six legal aid programs funded by LSC.

Presentations on the coordination of work in the face of increased client demand and decreased funding were made by Melville D. Miller Jr., president of Legal Services of New Jersey; Felipe Chavana, executive director of the Essex-Newark Legal Services Project; John Fitzgerald, executive director of Northeast New Jersey Legal Services; Douglas Gershuny, executive director of South Jersey Legal Services; Paul Mullin, executive director of Central Jersey Legal Services; William Rempel, executive director of Ocean-Monmouth Legal Services, and Diane Smith, executive director of Legal Services of Northwest Jersey.

Low-income individuals are losing jobs because of the weak economy and increasingly seeking help for housing, consumer, bankruptcy and family problems, such as domestic violence, the executive directors said.

A recently published study sponsored by Legal Services of New Jersey found that one in three individuals with lower incomes will experience at least one legal problem each year, and that the vast majority of low-income New Jersey residents do not get the legal assistance they need for their legal problems.

The weak economy has not only compounded problems for many low-income individuals and families, it has led to cutbacks in legal services that often make a meaningful difference in the lives of the poor.

The New Jersey programs told Board members that they may have to lay off or furlough employees, including legal aid attorneys, next spring and summer because of significant reductions in state funding, including Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts (IOLTA) grants, and in charitable giving. Some of the legal aid programs have eliminated pay raises and contributions to pensions, and others plan to consult in coming weeks with employee representatives on proposed cuts in job benefits. Earlier this year, most of the New Jersey programs curtailed spending and hiring in hopes of reducing the impact of state and local funding cuts on their services.

The executive directors of the New Jersey programs told LSC Board members that their funding outlook is bleak and will lead to staff reductions. For example, Douglas Gershuny said IOLTA funds were once 35 percent of the South Jersey Legal Services budget and now provide just 3 percent of funding. The program has 97 employees, down from 120 a few years ago. But requests for legal assistance, in a community where half of the residents qualify for LSC-funded services, are going up. "We are not seeing an end to the recession in our intake process," Gershuny said.

LSC provides about $7 million in legal services grants to New Jersey and the program directors told LSC Board members that federal funding is critical to helping their programs maintain operations and provide services.

"At a time when low-income Americans are at risk of losing their jobs, health insurance and homes, the work of LSC-funded programs is more critical than ever before. Ensuring that the poor are adequately represented in the civil judicial system greatly improves their chances of keeping or securing basic necessities -- the keys to stability and self-sufficiency," LSC President Helaine M. Barnett said.

LSC is currently operating under an interim funding resolution that expires Dec. 18, pending completion of the appropriations bill that includes LSC's funding. The House has approved a $50 million increase in LSC funding for Fiscal 2010, to $440 million. The Senate Appropriations Committee has recommended a $10 million funding increase, to $400 million, in Fiscal 2010.

LSC was established by Congress in 1974 as an independent nonprofit organization to ensure high-quality civil legal services are available to low-income Americans and to promote equal access to justice. More than 95 percent of LSC's funding goes to 137 nonprofit programs, with 918 offices, across the nation.