New Legal Services Report Reveals Silent Crisis In Civil Justice

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EDISON – The Legal Services of New Jersey Poverty Research Institute has released a new study report, “Unequal Access to Justice: Many Legal Needs, Too Little Legal Assistance,” with findings that LSNJ president Melville D. Miller, Jr., calls “quite disturbing.”

The report, which updates and expands LSNJ’s 2002 report on the same subject, shows that “the basic incidence of legal problems among people with lower incomes remains essentially constant since 2002 – one in three individuals with lower incomes will experience at least one legal problem each year, and the average number of problems that person is likely to experience increased by almost 30 percent, from 1.8 to 2.3,” said Miller.

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“Of those with at least one legal problem,” he continued, “approximately one in five people (21.7 percent) with lower incomes with at least one legal problem were able to get a lawyer, a slight improvement from just one in six in 2002. Unfortunately, data for this report was collected prior to Legal Services’ most recent severe funding reduction, so the picture is almost certainly now worse.”

Responding to the report, Stuart J. Rabner, Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, said, “The principle of equal justice for all lies at the foundation of the state’s Judiciary. Legal Services of New Jersey helps make that lofty goal a reality by providing vitally needed legal assistance to low-income individuals and families. By serving as a voice and an advocate for litigants in need, Legal Services promotes equal protection and the rule of law for all of us.”

James H. Coleman, Jr., former N. J. Supreme Court Justice and current chair of the LSNJ Board of Trustees, noted recent increases in legal needs due to the depressed economy, in areas such as home foreclosures and domestic violence.  “Higher numbers of low-income litigants find themselves in court without representation,” he said, “and they often come away feeling that – in the words of Martin Luther King –‘the bank of justice is bankrupt.’”  He called on those who care about equal justice “to support – financially and with their service – New Jersey’s Legal Services programs, to help them close the justice gap.”

The report’s findings are based on a survey, conducted in 2007, of 2,846 randomly selected English- and Spanish-speaking adults who lived in New Jersey for at least one year. The majority of the analysis in this report focuses on respondents with “lower incomes,” at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), which was $33,200 for a household of three in 2006. For comparison purposes, the report also includes analysis specific to a subset of respondents with “very low incomes,” at or below 100 percent of the FPL, and a group of respondents with “higher incomes,” above 200 percent of the FPL.

According to Anjali Srivastava, PRI research director who led the study team, “the latest Census figures indicate 2.036 million New Jersey residents have incomes below 200 percent of the FPL. Of these, 1.42 million are individuals 18 or older, the survey group for this study. Based upon the incidence rate revealed by this study,” she continued, “461,500 of these individuals will have a legal problem each year, and only 100,146 will have some form of legal assistance. The shortfall – the civil legal assistance and justice gap – is staggering: more than 360,000 unassisted individuals, representing a total number of legal problems with no legal help of more than 736,000.”

Other significant findings in “Unequal Access to Justice” include:
• A disproportionately high incidence of legal problems among certain groups. The average number of legal problems per person among respondents with lower incomes was greater for younger people than for older people, for African American respondents than for White respondents, for people living in households with a child than for those with no children, for people living in a single-adult household with at least one child than for other household types, for people living in rental rather than owned housing, and for people who are employed rather than unemployed.

• Consumer, housing and health legal problems had the highest rates of incidence. For those respondents with lower incomes who experienced at least one legal problem, more than one-third of the respondents experienced a consumer (36.7 percent) or housing (34.3 percent) legal problem, while about one-fifth of the respondents faced a health care (20.3 percent) legal problem.

•Lower-income people rated nearly two-thirds of their legal problems as “most serious.”
Lowell Arye, executive director of the Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities, noted that “the report demonstrates the incredible need for legal assistance to people who are poor or have low incomes – including people with disabilities, most of whom are poor, who need legal help with health problems, early intervention and special education. The funding gaps for Legal Services in New Jersey must be resolved to ensure that all New Jerseyans, including the poor, receive quality legal assistance.”

Reflecting on the crucial role of “skilled legal counsel” in ensuring equal justice, the Reverend Bruce Davidson, director of the Lutheran Office of Governmental Ministry in New Jersey, observed that, “at times, access to the best counsel is not available to those who have a just cause, but do not have the financial capacity to pay for it. We do not, I believe, want to become a nation in which we wind up having the best legal system money can buy.”

The value of legal assistance to low-income people with civil legal problems is vividly illustrated by the stories of three of the more than 67,000 clients served by New Jersey’s Legal Services programs in the past year:

• Hope VanSickle (Brick) faced the loss of her two daughters, whom DYFS had put into a pre-adoptive foster home, on the fast track to being adopted. Before she turned to Legal Services, she said, “I honestly thought I was going to lose my kids.” Legal Services helped get her children returned to her and assisted with several other legal matters. Reflecting on her inability to fight her legal battles on her own, Hope said, “I’m one person but Legal Services is a whole army.”

• John Chillemi (South Plainfield) was receiving unemployment benefits when his former employer successfully appealed the award; the benefits were stopped and he was asked for repayment of the benefits he had received. Legal Services helped get his benefits restored, the repayment demand dropped, and $10,000 in unpaid benefits paid. According to John, “without Legal Services’ help, I wouldn’t have gotten a fair hearing or a positive outcome. They gave me hope, and were enthusiastic about helping me.”

• Tonya Tucker (Newark) was denied a Section 8 housing voucher because of a minor past criminal conviction, until Legal Services intervened. The final paperwork is still being done, but she’s looking forward to getting a new, better apartment. Having had her own appeal of the denial rejected, she observed that “they took note when Legal Services was there to represent me. Had I done it on my own, the voucher would not have been awarded.”

Studies of the legal needs of low- and moderate-income Americans have been conducted at the local, state and national levels since the mid-1960s. New Jersey has had two such prior studies, both conducted by LSNJ, in 1985 and 2002. Reflecting on LSNJ’s reasons for conducting a new legal needs study, LSNJ president Miller said, “The number of people in poverty continues to increase, and the funding available to maintain—much less increase—the level of free legal services for the poor, which is currently experiencing a severe decline, is always at risk.”

“Legal problems and legal needs,” he continued, “represent but one aspect of the difficult daily lives of the poor, and poverty is a fact of life for the more than two million people in New Jersey who qualify for Legal Services’ help.  Yet, if more of those problems can be solved, more of those legal needs met, it would bring help and hope to many who have no other way to turn and, in some cases at least, lead the way out of poverty.  Help and hope for low-income people—through equal access to justice—is the ultimate purpose of this study, as it is of all Legal Services’ work.”

“Unequal Access to Justice” includes suggestions for future research on the effects of being unrepresented in court; the usefulness of receiving limited legal assistance; and impediments to seeking and securing counsel. The report concludes with an outline of “necessary steps to close the justice gap”: securing more funding for free legal services, principally for the statewide Legal Services system; simplifying legal procedures, to make court rules and processes more accessible to unrepresented litigants; and enhancing assistance to litigants representing themselves, from Legal Services and other legal assistance providers, as well as the courts.

Reflecting on the needs revealed by the report, Miller said, “The road ahead toward equal justice is long and steep. Success – achieving effective access to equal justice for all with significant legal problems – is a cornerstone of an orderly and democratic society.  We cannot fail in this quest.”


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