The Legal Aid Gap

Budget cuts leave a growing number of the state’s poor without representation in civil cases.

Photo by Amanda Brown/The Star-Ledger.

It’s not an issue that gets a lot of attention in New Jersey. It’s not as sexy as medical marijuana or as earth-shattering as health and pension reform for public employees. And no, it’s not the “millionaires’ tax” or helicopter-gate.

But we all should be concerned with the increasing number of New Jerseyans who are falling into poverty and have little or no ability to gain the legal advice they need in civil cases.

“Only one out of seven people at poverty level in New Jersey who need a lawyer for a civil case, get a lawyer,” says Melville D. Miller, president of Legal Services of New Jersey (lsnj.org). The same holds true, he says, on the national level. The problem is a lack of funding.

“What this translates to,” says Miller, “is that 99 percent of the people who are defendants in eviction actions in this state do not have a lawyer. As a result, they either don’t participate, they don’t show because they don’t have help, which means they lose. Or, they try to do it on their own”—which is hardly a solution. “Those who try to defend themselves don’t have much of a chance,” Miller says. 

Some may consider this just another liberal cause, something the ACLU might fret over. But recent research indicates that even the most conservative people believe that the right to an attorney is basic for all Americans and an important guarantee of the Constitution.

Think about it. Why should wealth—or the lack of it—affect an individual’s ability to get a fair trial? It shouldn’t. But with the economy standing still, the courthouse door is often slammed in the face of many of New Jersey’s unemployed or underemployed—especially when it comes to a variety of civil cases.

Specifically, says Miller, “There [was] a huge increase last year and the year before in people on the verge of being evicted. It was an increase of 8.4 percent in one year, which is obviously a result of the recession.”
The impact of all this goes beyond the chronically impoverished. “People who literally had a middle-class existence a year ago, and then [with] the loss of one or two jobs in the household, the bottom drops out,” Miller says. “They are typically in the process of losing their home or have lost their home. They may also be dealing with other issues like medical debt or consumer debt, and they are not really used to fighting those battles. So, the newly poor are one major group that we have not seen before.”

In such scenarios, there are all sorts of unfortunate human costs. For example, as homes are lost, kids may be put in foster care because they don’t have a secure place to live.

What can be done? Someone needs to stand up for increased funding. According to Miller, the state has cut $9.7 million from legal services—“which for us was about 33 percent of our budget. Every million we lose, we lose the ability to serve 1,100 people and we also have to reduce staff by at least 10 people.”

It’s hard to imagine many politicians tackling this issue. You don’t get points politically for legal aid the way you do with property tax rebates or increasing school aid to your hometown school district.

But for Miller and his team at Legal Services of New Jersey, providing legal advice to those in need is an essential mission. “I can’t think of a more important thing to do with a law degree,” Miller says. “Every day, we are making a huge difference in a lot of people’s lives. I just wish we were making more of a difference in more lives.”
 

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