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Justice: Lack of legal representation can lead to dire consequences

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.

Justice Shannon Bacon

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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