State aid cuts have forced the New Jersey Legal Services System to order staffing reductions that it says will deny free legal help to thousands of low-income residents this year and next.
The nonprofit will lay off 100 workers, including 50 lawyers, by January, and its affiliate, South Jersey Legal Services, serving the seven southern counties, will furlough a quarter of its attorneys.
So where can residents turn for assistance?
Try the library.
A New Jersey Courts program is training librarians to help patrons find legal forms and instructions so they can represent themselves.
Librarians won't replace attorneys or provide advice, state officials said, but will assist those who can't afford legal representation or don't want to pay for it in small-claims cases.
"This is in no way the answer," said Melville D. Miller Jr., president and general counsel of Legal Services of New Jersey. "But a small percentage of people can benefit."
More complicated matters will always require lawyers, he said. "As the saying goes, 'A man who represents himself has a fool for a client.' "
People "with significant legal problems have all kinds of impediments to representing themselves in court," Miller said. "Add the limitations of those in poverty - education, language, and fearfulness of government institutions - and most people cannot represent themselves."
Legal Services of New Jersey has been hampered by state budget cuts and dropping contributions for several years. State funding was cut by one-third or $9.7 million for fiscal 2011.
Since 2007, the staff, including attorneys, has dropped from 725 to 550 in March and will drop to 450 in January. By then, the number of lawyers will be down 36 percent, to 225.
The aid reduction meant a loss of $1.8 million for South Jersey Legal Services, resulting in 27 planned layoffs out of a staff of 90. The agency already had trimmed its budget by $1.1 million because of plummeting revenues on interest-bearing accounts.
Statewide, interest income for Legal Services fell from $3.7 million in 2007 to less than $400,000 last year because of a drop in economic activity. Private donations and United Way grants also decreased.
"Things were already lean before, but these cuts will force us to reduce our level of client service drastically," said Douglas Gershuny, executive director of South Jersey Legal Services.
His agency expects to handle 3,500 fewer cases in 2011 compared with this year.
Those cases "will include families losing their homes to foreclosure, eviction or mortgage scams, those improperly denied unemployment benefits or food stamps, victims of domestic violence, and others denied or losing some other basic life necessity because they couldn't afford a lawyer," Gershuny said.
Gary Boguski, president of South Jersey Legal Services' board of trustees and former president of the Camden County Bar Association, said the Legal Services cuts are the largest he's seen in 22 years on the board.
"This is by far the worst funding crisis we've ever experienced," he said. The "board, management, and staff will be undertaking the painful process of deciding areas of law and representation that [South Jersey Legal Services] can no longer provide."
Those cuts "will profoundly hurt the communities we serve, especially in these harsh economic times when they need us most," added Gershuny.
As the state slashes the budget, the cooperation between the New Jersey Courts, Legal Services, and libraries has become especially important.
"In this age of doing more with less, all government agencies seek partnerships that can more effectively serve the public," said Judge Glenn Grant, acting administrative director of the New Jersey Courts.
"This partnership will allow library patrons to gain information and insight into court policies and procedures at their local libraries, so they can proceed with their case informed and prepared for court," he said.
The judiciary's website, njcourts.com, has been providing a self-help resources center.
"More and more people are going to court without a lawyer because they cannot afford one, or they decide to handle the case on their own, or some other reason," said Nancy Gramaglia, the court's manager of litigant services, who has conducted several training sessions for librarians.
"Often, the first place they try is the library," she said. "Librarians are specialists who know how to connect people with information, so we are asking them to help us serve self-represented litigants."
David Calvanico, librarian at the Mount Laurel Library, who attended the New Jersey Courts workshop, said he had noticed an increase in legal queries in the last three years.
"I can't give legal advice, but I can point to statutes," he said. "We'll be better equipped now to handle the questions."
Other librarians agreed they would do what they could to help. "We just have to be careful not to cross the line," said Nancy Polhamus, reference librarian at the Mullica Hill Branch of the Gloucester County Library System, where an October workshop for librarians will be held. "We'll help them find information, not practice law."