We all know that anybody accused of a crime has the right to legal representation and that if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. But being provided a lawyer is not a right, nor is a lawyer guaranteed in civil legal cases even though these types of cases can change the course of a person’s life and have severe life consequences.
Civil legal cases – anything that’s not criminal – can involve eviction, child custody and guardianship, veteran’s benefits, consumer debt and restraining orders against an abusive partner. When it comes to essential legal matters, people deserve access to resources to help them through the process. Injustices occur when people do not have access to the help they need. People can become homeless, lose benefits or lose their children.
It is also a great drain on court time and resources. Something as simple as a scheduling conference – where deadlines and dates are set for the trial – becomes complicated when a party does not have representation or the resources to understand the process. When both sides are represented by an attorney, this conference can take 15 minutes and a court reporter is not necessary. When one party does not have representation, it can take an hour and requires a court reporter as well as a judge explaining the consequences of choosing certain deadlines or missing deadlines and hearings. The judge must also do this without giving any legal advice to either party.
I’ve presided over thousands of civil legal cases in my career and consistently saw an unrepresented party outmaneuvered by a lawyer on the other side, simply because they did not understand the rules and lacked representation or the legal resources to fully understand the process and the case.
I proudly serve on the New Mexico Commission on Access to Justice, which was created by the New Mexico Supreme Court in 2004 as an independent, statewide body dedicated to expanding and improving civil legal assistance in the state. Judges, attorneys and legal service providers comprise the eighteen-member commission. The commission’s goal is to increase access to justice for those with civil legal needs.
When people have access to legal resources such as plain language forms, legal advice, self-help centers, or even a pro-bono attorney for these cases, they are empowered with knowledge about their full rights and the legal process, giving them access to the justice they deserve.
The need to expand these legal resources is great. The Commission on Access to Justice estimates that only 20 percent of people who need legal resources are receiving them. It also means that New Mexicans may not always recognize that they have a legal problem.
The courts and the commission are working to increase access to justice, and I applaud them. Providing online forms, the development of plain language forms, and online resources for dispute resolution are already making an impact for self-represented parties.
Unless people care, nothing will happen. We are embarking on a public campaign to alert the public that this serious issue exists and needs to be addressed. If we are committed to providing legal resources for everyone who needs it, we can have justice for all.
I will continue to work with the Commission on Access to Justice to expand these resources for all New Mexicans with a civil legal need. For more information or to find legal resources, please visit accesstojustice.nmcourts.gov.
Justice Shannon Bacon has been a member of the Commission on Access to Justice for eight years and presided over thousands of civil cases before being appointed to the New Mexico Supreme Court.