New Mexico justices work to boost access to legal services
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — More New Mexico residents would have access to civil legal services under proposals approved by the state Supreme Court.
Chief Justice Judith K. Nakamura said Friday the court recognizes the state faces a significant gap in access to justice. She pointed to residents who cannot afford an attorney to resolve legal problems ranging from housing and financial disputes to family matters such as child custody and support.
“To truly fulfill the promise of equal justice under the law, we must offer more assistance for the critical legal needs of New Mexicans,” she said.
The court established a work group last year to consider whether New Mexico should authorize a new non-lawyer practitioner to provide civil legal services. The group submitted a report to the court, resulting in the proposals that were recently endorsed.
The proposals include efforts to attract more out-of-state law school graduates to practice in New Mexico and possible financial incentives for attorneys who practice in rural or underserved communities.
According to the work group, New Mexico’s limited access to legal services is due to a lack of attorneys in many areas of the state, costly attorney fees and the retirement of lawyers who are not replaced.
Court officials say one-third of the state’s counties have 10 or fewer attorneys, and three counties — De Baca, Harding and Hidalgo — have no active resident attorneys.
The court directed the State Bar to explore working with the University of New Mexico School of Law on the possibility of offering government stipends and student loan forgiveness for attorneys who agree to live and work in selected areas.
The justices also ordered the Administrative Office of the Courts to develop a pilot program in which specially trained personnel would serve as court navigators to assist people who don’t have an attorney. Navigators potentially could help people obtain and fill out court forms, organize documents needed for cases and attend hearings to provide support for self-represented litigants.
Research also will continue into whether the state should license non-lawyers to perform limited types of legal work.