Assembly Democratic Bill to Fund Legal Assistance to Low-Income Residents; Modernize Court Information System Released by Assembly Panel

Legislation is sponsored by Barnes, Ramos, Caputo, Johnson, Wisniewski, Vainieri Huttle & Burzichelli

(TRENTON) - Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Peter J. Barnes III, Ruben Ramos, Ralph Caputo, Gordon Johnson, John Wisniewski, Valerie Vainieri Huttle and John Burzichelli to authorize the Supreme Court to increase or add new court filing fees to help fund the modernization of the state's court information system, as well as the work of Legal Services of New Jersey, a non-profit that provides free legal assistance in civil matters to individuals living below the poverty line, was released Monday by the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

"New Jersey's courts retain millions of records. Yet the court's computer antiquated computer system has contributed to soiled information, high maintenance costs, and inefficiencies," said Barnes (D-Middlesex). "This bill helps cut down on maintenance costs and provides better safe keeping of court records by funding the modernization of our court systems. It also creates a more stable source of funding to support the important work of Legal Services of New Jersey, as well as other organizations and programs that provide legal services to residents who otherwise could not afford it."

The bill (A-3308) would allow the Supreme Court to adopt rules to revise or supplement filing fees payable to the court. All existing filing fees and other statutory fees could be increased by no more than $50 in the aggregate for each fee. Revenue from the fees would be used to fund the development, maintenance and administration of a statewide, computerized court information system; and the provision of legal assistance in civil matters by Legal Services of New Jersey and its affiliates.

"Legal Services of New Jersey provides an important service to people in our state who cannot afford legal representation in civil cases, yet funding for it has been on a steady decline," said Ramos (D-Hudson). "By providing a more reliable source of funding for this organization, we can ensure these residents don't have to step into a courtroom without proper legal representation."

"Legal services can be quite costly and not everyone can afford to hire an attorney to represent them in a civil case, especially residents who are living below the poverty line," said Caputo (D-Essex)). "This bill would ensure that residents who struggle financially have access to proper legal guidance. No one should have to forfeit justice because they couldn't afford to pay for an attorney."

"Legal Services of New Jersey has been a lifeline for low-income residents in need of legal assistance, but that assistance is threatened by deep reductions in funding its main revenue source, as well as from the current administration," said Johnson (D-Bergen). "In these times when so many people are unemployed and struggling economically, maintaining this service is critical."

"We cannot entrust millions of court records to an antiquated computer system. The outdated technology has not only led to high maintenance costs and inefficiencies, but also performance declines," said Wisniewski (D-Middlesex). "The trial courts for example have a combined backlog of nearly 30,000 cases. In order to protect the integrity of our court system, we must modernize."

"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 continue to offer free, legal services in civil cases to those who can't afford it, and help upgrade the courts' antiquated computer system for enhanced productivity at lower costs."    

"In addition to reducing operating costs and boosting productivity, the benefits of adapting an e-Court system include better outcomes for litigants and offenders, a standardized delivery of justice services and immediate access to the courts," said Burzichelli (D-Cumberland/Gloucester/Salem). "It is time for our court system to join the 21st century, modernize and start reaping the benefits."

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 following $10.1 million would be appropriated annually to Treasury 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 sole purpose of developing, maintaining and administering information technology.

The bill would require the Administrative Director of the Courts to submit a report to the Governor, the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the General Assembly describing the Judiciary's use of the funding and its progress toward the development of a statewide digital e-court information system. The bill also would require Legal Services to submit to the Governor, the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the General Assembly and the state auditor a detailed financial statement describing how funds were used for the provision of legal assistance to the poor. In addition, 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, 2013, 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.
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