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Assembly Panel Advances Barnes Bill to Fund Legal Assistance to Low-Income Residents; Modernize Court Information Systems

(TRENTON) – An Assembly panel on Thursday advanced a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Peter J. Barnes III to authorize the Supreme Court to increase or add new court filing fees to fund the judiciary’s computerized court information system, and Legal Services of New Jersey, a non-profit that provides legal assistance in civil matters to individuals living below the poverty line at no charge.

“Everyone has a right to legal representation, but in civil cases, not everyone can afford it. Legal Services of New Jersey has been a lifeline for low-income residents in need of legal assistance, yet the governor reduced its funding by $10 million in last year’s budget,” said Barnes (D-Middlesex). “This bill creates a more stable source of funding to allow this organization to continue its important work of assisting people who need legal help in civil matters, but can’t afford it. In these times when more and more people are struggling economically, maintaining this service is critical.”

The bill (A-763) would authorize the Supreme Court to adopt rules to revise or supplement filing fees payable to the court. Revenue from the fees would be used to fund:

  • the provision of legal assistance in civil matters by Legal Services of New Jersey;
  • the development, maintenance and administration of a statewide, computerized court information system; and
  • certain justice-related programs in the executive branch.

“This bill would not only help fund Legal Services of New Jersey, but would also help fund the computerization of our court systems. In this digital age, it is a move in the right direction,” said Barnes.

The bill would establish in the general fund a dedicated, non-lapsing fund to be known as the “21st Century Justice Improvement Fund” into which Treasury would deposit annually a sum equal to the revenue derived from the increase in the fees collected pursuant to the bill.

To the extent that sufficient funds are available, annual collections deposited into the “21st Century Justice Improvement Fund” would be distributed as follows:

  • The first $17 million deposited into the fund would be appropriated annually to assist the courts in transitioning to a computerized court information system (commonly referred to as “e-Courts”);
  • The next $25 million would be appropriated annually to support justice-related program in the executive branch including, but not limited to, the following: Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), Justice Involved Mental Health Diversions, Family Crisis Intervention, Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, Alternatives to Juvenile Incarceration, Juvenile Crisis Intervention Programs, Victims of Crime Compensation Office, Juvenile Justice Commission Female Substance Abuse Programs, enhanced DNA testing, State Police Laboratory Enhancements, and the Office of Public Guardian for Elderly Adults;
  • The following $10.1 million would be appropriated annually to the Department of Community Affairs to facilitate the provision of legal assistance to the poor in civil matters. This funding would supplement any funds appropriated from any other sources to Legal Services;
  • Any remaining funding would be retained by the judiciary for the purpose of developing, maintaining and administering information technology.

The bill would require Legal Services of New Jersey to submit a financial statement to the governor, the Senate president, the Assembly speaker and the state auditor describing how funds received pursuant to the bill were used to provide legal assistance to the poor in civil matters, no later than 60 days prior to the end of each state fiscal year. Additionally, the use of public funds received by Legal Services would be subject to oversight by the state auditor.

The bill would take effect on July 1, 2012, except the Supreme Court would be permitted to immediately propose rules for adoption. The authority of the Supreme Court to supplement filing fees and other court fees would expire on the first day of the seventh month following enactment, except that any fee revisions adopted during that period would remain in effect.

The bill was released by the Assembly Judiciary Committee.