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Editorial: NM should carefully beef up alternatives to a lawyer

If a proposal to allow non-lawyers to provide some amount of legal advice is properly executed, it could go a long way to help deliver justice to New Mexicans, especially those with limited financial resources in rural parts of the state.

The idea, currently being fleshed out by a New Mexico Supreme Court-sanctioned study group, makes a lot of sense. The gap in legal services is real. The news that two of New Mexico’s 33 counties – De Baca and Harding – are each home to exactly zero licensed attorneys is a bit shocking but not really that surprising. In fact around 20% of the state’s counties have five or fewer lawyers.

Of course, many New Mexicans can go years, even a lifetime, without needing help or services from a licensed attorney. But when the need does arise – consider divorce, custody and estate disputes – having a legal resource nearby can make a world of difference.

Many New Mexicans facing legal challenges in far-flung parts of the state can’t afford to hire an attorney, let alone one they have to drive any distance to meet. So a rising number of civil litigants – both in rural areas and city centers in New Mexico – are choosing to forgo representation altogether.

While self-representation is an important right, it can be a daunting endeavor. Anybody who has watched a layperson muddle through court procedures while a judge awkwardly tries to offer guidance without giving explicit advice would agree it’s not ideal in any matter of importance.

Some states allow non-attorneys to provide legal services in matters like landlord-tenant disputes, divorce proceedings or other civil cases. And the concept of mid-level practitioners is old hat in medicine; nurse practitioners, physician assistants and nurse anesthetists are just a few examples of professionals who provide services in what used to be the no-man’s land between registered nurse and medical doctor.

Paralegals, legal technicians and investigators who spend significant amounts of time in and around the legal system are often well-versed in the law. Training those types of professionals to help increase the availability of legal services is like a smart use of resources – as long as it’s done carefully.

With a well-planned training regime, clear-cut rules and boundaries, and an unambiguous oversight structure, there’s no reason this idea can’t help the justice system work better for more New Mexicans.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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