Media Contacts: - Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, Karen Sacks, Executive Director, 973-645-1951 x 110, firstname.lastname@example.org;
Lowenstein Sandler LLP, Catherine Weiss, counsel to petitioner, 973-597-2438, email@example.com.
TRENTON, N.J. - The New Jersey Supreme Court today approved a pro bono bankruptcy clinic run by Volunteer Lawyers for Justice (VLJ), an organization that works through pro bono lawyers to provide vital legal services to low-income individuals and families. Reversing a decision of the Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics, the Court held that volunteer lawyers staffing the clinic do not face a conflict of interest under the Rules of Professional Conduct that govern the legal profession. With appropriate safeguards, a volunteer attorney can represent a low-income debtor in a no-asset Chapter 7 bankruptcy matter even if the attorney's firm represents one or more of the debtor's creditors in unrelated matters.
Advisory ethics committees in New York and Boston have also found that pro bono Chapter 7 bankruptcy programs similar to VLJ's do not give rise to a conflict of interest.
Low-income New Jersey residents facing civil legal challenges are often unable to get legal help. In the Chapter 7 bankruptcy context, a technical area not designed for the layperson, the number of self-represented bankruptcy filings has grown in the wake of the recession, and litigants without lawyers are less successful than those with lawyers in getting their debts discharged.
The opinion stands as a strong statement of support for pro bono legal service. As Chief Justice Rabner wrote for a unanimous Court:
Programs like VLJ's clinic help address this crisis, as volunteer lawyers try to pave the way for debtors to recover financially. We commend the lawyers in this and other pro bono initiatives who offer their skill and help at a time of need. By doing so, they help bridge the justice gap that leaves many low-income residents in New Jersey without legal services.
In the Matter of Opinion No. 17-2012 of the Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics (A-22-13) (072810)