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LSNJ History

Legal Services programs were started county by county in the mid-60's, tracking those areas where there were supportive bar leaders or local community organizations. In a number of cases, these new programs merged with and supplanted preexisting county bar association legal aid societies. Many Legal Services programs began as part of OEO-funded community action corporations, later splitting and becoming independent. Since the mid-1970's, all county Legal Services programs have been independent non-profit corporations, not part of or affiliated with any other community organization. Each has its own board of trustees, a majority of whom are lawyers appointed by the local county bar association.

Statewide coordination of these separate county programs began later in the 1960's, coordinated first by the State Office of Legal Services within the state Department of Community Affairs, then by an informal project directors group in 1971-1972, by the New Jersey Legal Services Association in 1973, and thereafter by LSNJ, starting later that year (LSNJ had been organized a year earlier, in 1972). New Jersey has thus had a long - and strong - history of statewide coordination going back three decades, through LSNJ and its staff, task forces, statewide training, newsletters, legal and administrative support, fundraising and other work. Recent highlights have included statewide technology coordination, standardizing intake practices, instituting a statewide legal hotline, and program evaluations. Local program staff participate actively in and support these activities. Since 1973, Legal Services has spoken with a unified voice through LSNJ to the judiciary, Legislature, Governor and executive branch, and is perceived by each as a unified system—an enormous strength.

The various growth and retrenchment periods have each in turn tended to further strengthen this systematic coordination. During the expansion period from 1976 to 1979, New Jersey put substantial resources into increasing LSNJ's staff. Then, during the 1981-1983 retrenchment phase, LSNJ was called upon to coordinate the planning response and the quest for new resources. This emphasis on securing state level restoration and expansion funding continued through the remainder of the 1980's and 1990's. The IOLTA (Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts) program was made mandatory in 1993 and has provided increasing levels of statewide support, especially after new interest rate guidelines were established in 2005 – though revenues have fluctuated greatly according to economic conditions. State funding also saw significant gains, supported in part by legislation to increase filing fees. In 2003, the state’s 14 county-based programs were consolidated into six regional programs forming, with LSNJ, the New Jersey Legal Services system as it stands today.