Barnes, Greenwald, Quijano, Spencer & Vainieri Huttle Bill to Fund Legal Assistance to Low-Income Residents; Modernize Court Information System Approved by the Senate

(TRENTON) – Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Peter J. Barnes III, Lou Greenwald, Annette Quijano, Grace Spencer and Valerie Vainieri Huttle 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 free legal assistance in civil matters to individuals living below the poverty line, was approved 24-11 Monday by the Senate.

“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/S-2062) would authorize the Supreme Court to revise or supplement filing fees and other statutory fees payable to the court. Under the bill, the fee increases would be limited to $50 per fee. Revenue from the fees would be used to fund:

  • the development, maintenance and administration of a statewide, computerized court information system, that incorporates electronic filing, service of process, document and case management, financial management, and public access to digital court records; and
  • the provision of legal assistance in civil matters by Legal Services of New Jersey.

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 $10.1 million would be appropriated annually to the Department of the Treasury for distribution to Legal Services of New Jersey and its affiliates. This amount would supplement other funds as may be appropriated from any other source in a fiscal year for the same purpose. Additionally, this amount as well as all other state funds distributed to Legal Services of New Jersey would be required to be used exclusively for the provision of legal assistance to the poor in civil matters.
  • Any remaining funding would be retained by the judiciary for the purpose of developing, maintaining and administering information technology.

“Legal Services of New Jersey provides an essential service to people in our state who unfortunately can’t afford legal representation in civil cases,” said Greenwald (D-Camden/Burlington). “The judicial system can be complicated and intimidating. By providing funding for this organization, we can ensure these residents don’t have to step into a courtroom without proper legal guidance.”

“This bill accomplishes several purposes. It helps fund the important work of Legal Services of New Jersey, as well as other organizations and programs that provide services to our most vulnerable residents, and helps cut down on high maintenance costs and provided better safe keeping of court records by funding the computerization of our court systems,” said Quijano (D-Union).

“Legal services can be quite expensive. Hiring an attorney to represent them in a civil case is sadly not an option for many residents living below the poverty line. This bill would ensure that these residents have access to proper legal advice and other valuable services,” said Spencer (D-Essex). “No one should have to risk getting justice because they couldn’t afford to pay for an attorney.”

“Navigating the judicial system can be daunting. No one should have to go at it alone, especially because of money,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “This bill provides the funds that will help Legal Services of New Jersey to continue to offer free, legal services in civil cases to those who can’t afford it, and upgrade the courts’ antiquated computer system for enhanced productivity at lower operating costs. It’s a win-win.”

The bill authorizes the courts to review the fee increases around the fifth and tenth anniversaries of the effective date, to determine whether the fees should remain unchanged or be reduced to reflect the funding needs associated with the computerized court information system.

The bill would take effect on July 1, 2012, except for the sections in the bill authorizing the Supreme Court to revise or supplement filing fees and other statutory fees, which would take effect immediately. The bill now heads back to the Assembly for further consideration.