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In New Mexico, Nonattorney Helpers Could Ease Justice Crisis (NM)

Sunday, February 02, 2020

In New Mexico, Nonattorney Helperes Could Ease Justice Crisis

"Judge Albert Mitchell serves on the bench in an area of New Mexico just west of the Texas border where no lawyers at all live in a two-county region that stretches across more than 4,000 square miles.

In a court where an enormous number of litigants do not have legal counsel, “everything takes dramatically longer” because the judge has to explain basic legal concepts to the people appearing before him and shepherd them through the process during their days in court, Mitchell said.

“Divorces that used to take a judge 15 minutes are now taking four to five hours because the lawyer used to gather the information, package it, vet it, but now I have to do that as the trial judge,” he said.

Judge Mitchell said he is hopeful that a number of new initiatives approved by the New Mexico Supreme Court on Jan. 24 will mitigate some of the challenges rural counties like his face in order to help people access justice in a way that is useful to them and which will lead to a more effective and efficient court system.

The state’s high court approved a plan to introduce nonlawyer helpers, called court navigators, into the courts to assist self-represented litigants navigate the system and plans to provide financial incentives to entice attorneys to set up shop in rural parts of the state. New Mexico will also continue to explore the possibility of licensing nonlawyer professionals to take on a limited number of legal tasks that are now performed by lawyers.

The state Administrative Office of the Courts will create the framework for the court navigators program over the next few months, officials said. And, it is likely that funding for the rural attorney incentives will be requested from the New Mexico Legislature in 2021.

Mitchell said he believes the planned changes will have a “huge impact” on his court where 11 local attorneys serve more than 10,000 residents in three counties and where not one attorney lives in two of those three counties.

Many rural communities like those in east New Mexico are facing an access to justice crisis that is impacted both by residents’ ability to afford legal help and because of the shortage of lawyers.

“In your typical rural area where you’ve got a declining population, and a contracting economy — just like these communities are struggling to hold onto their grocery store, they’re losing their lawyers,” said University of California, Davis, law school professor Lisa Pruitt, author of a report on rural access to justice and “legal deserts.”

In 2017, low-income, rural residents received inadequate or no professional help for 86% of their civil legal problems, according to the Legal Services Corporation’s 2017 Access to Justice Report..."

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