No one would deny that our society believes in equal justice for all. The concept of equal justice is complex. That is because we are a people passionate about social ideologies, we are passionate about how we treat each other, and we are passionate about how we spend our hard-earned money when we turn a complex social ideology into a concrete way of life.
Equal justice for all means not only having a justice system but also providing a way for people to get access to the court system.
Equal justice is equal access to the judicial branch, our court system. Judges rely on many factors when making decisions about the cases before them. The average New Mexican does not know what all of those factors are; when they represent themselves, they find the court system is mysterious, it uses words from a dead language, and there is no road map.
Equal access to the courts is denied to people when the very system they must use to obtain equal justice uses words and concepts impossible for the average person to understand.
If you’re poor in New Mexico, you can’t afford to pay a private attorney to go to court with you. Many poor New Mexicans cannot even afford to consult with an attorney before they go to court. As a result, many poor New Mexicans become very frustrated and confused about the judicial system. The existing processes for entry into the justice system is something akin to a carnival “house of mirrors” – where what is normal appears quite distorted.
The level of frustration and difficulty people face when they go to court alone is great, and many poor people who represent themselves simply give up. This is not what our founding fathers intended our legal system to be.
Our society’s obligation
Our society has an obligation to provide all New Mexicans equal access to the courts. In the past seven years, all three branches of the state government – the legislative, executive and judiciary – have worked together to provide funds to ensure that at least some poor New Mexicans have access to advice or representation when they have legal problems.
New Mexico Legal Aid has used these funds from the state to represent the destitute, the homeless or those threatened with being homeless, the victims of domestic violence, children, the elderly and low-income working New Mexicans in situations that they never wanted to face.
When New Mexico Legal Aid is able to represent a client, it always tries to negotiate first. Going to court is the last resort. Often, justice can be found before going to court. Representing these clients helps keep them from becoming a “burden to society” and helps them become more self-sufficient.
New Mexico Legal Aid does not get large “windfalls” for their clients, and they don’t handle criminal cases, but they do try to help their clients keep their home and income and have some security in their lives.
New Mexico Legal Aid helps New Mexicans who have little or no expertise navigate the justice system. That help may come in the form of representation, it may be advice, it may be through assistance in a legal clinic, or it may be help locating an attorney who will do work for free or by referring the client to another program.
New Mexico Legal Aid also works to provide education to the public on the laws that affect their property rights and their economic livelihood. For instance, we provide, for free, a “Renter’s Guide” (in English and Spanish) so that landlords and tenants can talk with each other on common ground.
Access to justice also means access to attorneys who can answer questions or give direction to legal issues people face in court. With 11 New Mexico Legal Aid offices throughout the State of New Mexico, most New Mexicans live near a Legal Aid office. The organization has 40 attorneys who provide help to the approximate 350,000 people in New Mexico who live below the poverty line.
Not the time to cut or end state funding
Funding from the state is awarded from the Department of Finance and Administration through competitive proposals. State funding represents a significant portion of the New Mexico Legal Aid budget. State funding to New Mexico Legal Aid has been cut by almost 25 percent in the last 18 months because of the state’s financial problems.
Starting in January, the next Legislature, and our new governor, must deal with unprecedented budget shortfalls. Legislative committees are meeting now to revise the state’s 2010-2011 budget and develop the budget for 2011-2012. There are already proposals to cut or eliminate funding for civil legal services.
Any cuts to New Mexico Legal Aid will result in layoffs of staff. Elimination of funding will mean closure of local offices.
This is not the time to cut or end funding for legal services to poor New Mexicans. All New Mexicans need more help, not less, and they all deserve access to the courts. Justice exists when people can access it.
Strouse is the executive director of New Mexico Legal Aid. This column was co-authored by Legal Aid’s Dorene Kuffer and John D. Watson, and by Jodie Schwebel, the pro se coordinator at the 3rd Judicial District Court in Las Cruces.