(CN) – In New Mexico, where more than 20% of counties have fewer than five practicing lawyers – and two counties have no lawyers at all – a work group is considering an initiative that would allow non-lawyer legal technicians to provide civil legal services to people who are unable to afford an attorney.
The New Mexico Supreme Court recently formed the group – comprised of lawyers, educators and advocates – to look into implementing a limited license legal technician (LLLT) program in the state and consider other possible changes to court rules and programs that would improve the availability of legal services in the state.
“Consideration of a limited legal technician is part of an initiative for advancing judicial excellence in New Mexico to make it easier for the public to access court services, reduce delays in resolving cases and more efficiently operate courts by streamlining case processing and simplifying our court structure,” said New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura.
Washington state pioneered the limited license legal technician program in 2013, allowing legal providers – who are not lawyers – to assist in family law cases. The legal technicians can file court documents and advise clients without the supervision of an attorney but cannot appear in court. In Washington, legal technicians must have an associate’s degree in any subject and complete a certain number of credit hours in legal studies from an approved program.
The New Mexico work group will examine the successes of Washington’s limited license legal technician program, consider educational requirements and how to create programs to meet those educational standards, and explore the possible effects of implementing the program.
The group is supposed to report to the state supreme court by January 1, 2020.
The lack of available attorneys and the high cost of lawyers’ fees has led to increasing numbers of New Mexicans representing themselves in civil matters. In 2018, 51% of new civil cases in district courts had at least one party without an attorney.
Work group member George Chandler, a Los Alamos attorney and commissioner on the New Mexico Commission on Access to Justice, said he hopes the the group can improve access to justice for lower-income and middle-income individuals.
“Justice should be accessible to everybody, and lawyers are priced out of reach of as much as 80% of the population,” Chandler said. “I want to improve access to justice for people who don’t qualify for legal aid and free programs, but who can’t afford a regular lawyer. The LLLT could make access more affordable for everyone.”
The group is chaired by District Judge Donna J. Mowrer of the 9th Judicial District of Curry and Roosevelt counties.