By Katy Barnitz / Journal Staff Writer
Published: Tuesday, June 25th, 2019 at 5:59pm
Updated: Tuesday, June 25th, 2019 at 11:30pm
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s common knowledge that the criminally accused are guaranteed access to an attorney, but a New Mexico commission is launching a campaign to remind the public that people are often on their own when it comes to civil matters.
A growing number of people are representing themselves in high-stakes legal battles over things like child custody, eviction, predatory lending and access to benefits. According to the Administrative Office of the Courts, just more than half of new civil cases filed in district court in fiscal year 2018 involved at least one party without a lawyer – up from 36% in fiscal year 2011.
“Without any legal experience, New Mexicans find themselves in court, often outmaneuvered by the party who has a lawyer, not understanding the rules that govern the proceedings, including the important deadlines and not fully understanding their rights,” Supreme Court Justice Shannon Bacon said at a news conference Tuesday. “This all too frequently results in dire consequences.”
“Think About This,” a six-week, $25,000 print, radio and television ad campaign by the state’s Commission on Access to Justice begins this week. It is intended to show that a “lack of legal representation is causing serious injustice and suffering in civil cases,” according to a news release.
“We’re never going to get the support we need for the improvements unless we raise people’s awareness,” commission co-chair Liz McGrath said in an interview after the news conference.
The commission, founded by the state Supreme Court in 2004, is working to make resources more readily available, particularly to people with essential civil needs, including housing issues, family law and consumer debt. In some cases, that might mean directing a person to a plain language, online form. In others it might require free legal representation. In recent months, the courts have been rolling out its own initiatives to make the system easier to access. In May, the AOC said a work group was considering whether non-attorney practitioners should be allowed to provide civil legal help to people unable to afford a lawyer. And early this month, the courts started a new online dispute resolution program, which is available in debt and money-due lawsuits.
But Bacon said Tuesday afternoon that the court system and legal service providers will need community help in order to make expanded access a reality.
“It takes the whole community to care about the problem and to come together and try and create solutions,” she said. “Whether it’s collaboration, creative thinking, it takes everybody to get to that ultimate goal – it’s a lofty goal – of 100 percent access.”
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Every family deserves access to quality child care, but many parents struggle to pay the high costs of this care while they are working or in school. Although the Child Care Assistance program is supposed to help low-income families cover these costs, illegal and confusing barriers in the application process have prevented thousands of eligible New Mexican children from enrolling.
Last year, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (NMCLP) filed a case against the New Mexico Children, Youth, and Families Department (CYFD) to address several violations of law in the state’s administration of the Child Care Assistance program. Attorneys at NMCLP settled this case in May 2019—winning a strong court order requiring CYFD to resolve all of the major issues identified in the complaint. Among other things, the court ordered CYFD to clearly explain the eligibility requirements and parent cost-sharing responsibilities for Child Care Assistance; revise its notices, forms, and caseworker training; and maintain eligibility at the current level until lawfully changed.
Once fully-implemented, these changes will make it easier for thousands of families to care for their children while working, pursuing job training, or attending school. (Photo: Plaintiff Annette Torres speaking at NMCLP's press conference announcing the lawsuit in September 2018.)
New Mexico Legal Aid recently received international recognition from the World Justice Project for its cutting edge medical-legal partnership called Partnering for Native Health. New Mexico Legal Aid is one of six legal aid organizations partnering with 14 tribes to place AmeriCorps legal fellows on site as part of a tribal health center team addressing Native Americans’ health inequities.
Medical-legal partnerships are a growing trend across the country with 373 operating in 47 states, but NMLA’s Partnering For Native Health project is a first-in-the-nation initiative serving American Indians and Alaskan Natives. AmeriCorps fellow Alyssa Mercado has been completing intake and seeing clients at First Nations Community HealthSource’s main Albuquerque location every Monday and at its satellite location at the University of New Mexico Truman Health Center on Tuesdays. Most of Mercado’s clients are homeless and are challenged with a variety of legal issues that are adversely affecting their health.
First Nations primarily serves Albuquerque’s urban Indian population, but no one is turned away. Mercado has helped clients retain custody of their children, obtain public benefits they had been denied, and avoid being evicted from their homes. Mercado works with NMLA’s other Native American Program attorneys under the direction of Director Cindy Aragon.
There are tremendous benefits of the collaboration with First Nations. Having an attorney on site and immediately available removes barriers for clients who may lack transportation, have no telephone or other means of communication, and who benefit from First Nations’ navigators who make sure patients are supported every step of the way to access referrals and complete visits.