What is the difference between information and legal advice?
If someone wants to know the jurisdictional limit in civil cases in Metropolitan Court, that is a request for information. There is only one answer. It is $10,000.
If the same person is wondering whether he or she should file a civil complaint in Metropolitan Court or District Court, that is a request for legal advice. It calls for an opinion, and there is no one right answer.
Why is that distinction important and how does it affect you?
Everyone has the right to represent himself or herself. It is called pro se status. But with the cost-saving benefits of pro se status come certain realities.
Often I will ask a pro se civil litigant why he or she filed a particular document or pleading. The answer is usually, “That’s what the clerk downstairs told me to file.” That response will not help a litigant, and generally speaking, something definitely got lost in the translation.
The Metropolitan Court is neither a law clinic nor a law firm. No one in the courthouse may give legal advice. Neither the judges nor any court staff can offer legal counsel. Why not?
Simply put, the Metropolitan Court, like any other court, offers a fair and impartial venue within which to resolve disputes. We do not advocate. We resolve cases. Lawyers advocate for their clients and pro se individuals advocate for themselves. That is the way our system works.
But there is good news for pro se litigants and anyone else who is looking for legal answers but who may not be able to afford an attorney. Metropolitan Court has a Self-Help Center. The Second Judicial District Court in Bernalillo County also has a Self-Help Division, as do numerous other district courts around the state.
Metropolitan Court’s Self-Help Center first opened in 2001. Its business hours are from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, including the lunch hour. It provides information on a first-come, first-served basis – valuable information.
Metro’s Self-Help Center is supervised by paralegal Renee Valdez, who has been with Metropolitan Court since 2001. She handles a staggering 1,200-people-a-month caseload. People have learned of the Self-Help Center through word of mouth and court staff, and clearly, people are taking advantage of it.
The Metropolitan Court Self-Help Center provides information about a lot of topics: parking tickets, civil cases, criminal cases, traffic cases, landlord-tenant cases, you name it. The center has a small library with legal forms and court rules which are periodically updated by in-house counsel for Metropolitan Court. Informational brochures and pamphlets are provided, as well, on a variety of legal issues.
The Metro Self-Help Center also provides an invaluable service in its ability to match people with outside nonprofit agencies. There is a vast array of resources in our community, and the Center helps people find and utilize them.
And the best news? The Self-Help Center is intending to open a free legal clinic once a month with attorneys to counsel people in civil matters. The clinic currently is slated to open in March. If all goes well, perhaps one day it could turn into its own free law clinic open full-time and staffed by volunteer pro bono attorneys. Anything is possible.
I appreciate how Valdez approaches her job. She believes that empathy and listening to people are the two most important duties of her job. She is good at it. In December, she received the Second Judicial District Court’s Pro Bono Award for all of her pro bono volunteer work, in addition to and apart from her job.
In addition to the Metro Self-Help Center, the Civil Division also had a mediation department, which works to help people settle their cases once a case actually reaches litigation. That is a subject for another column, but Self-Help and Mediation complement each other and definitely provide a cohesive service to people who otherwise cannot afford legal counsel.
Metropolitan Court may not be able to provide legal advice to pro se individuals, but it most assuredly can point everyone in the right direction. We can help you find answers to your legal questions without crossing that fine line between information and legal advice. We want to help you. And isn’t that what public service is all about?
Daniel E. Ramczyk is a Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court judge. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual judge.