Civil legal service providers in New Mexico look for cash to fill a gap of unmet need
You might be one of the 21 percent of New Mexicans living below 125 percent of the poverty level. It's not unlikely, given that 101,651 people in Albuquerque are part of that statistic. You want to file for divorce or determine why your Social Security checks have stopped coming. Maybe your landlord hasn't fixed the heater for more than a month, and winter's made its entrance.
"It's a situation where [people] have to deal with agencies and entities that are much larger than they are that have criteria and things that need to be met," says Margaret Carde, the regional managing attorney for New Mexico Legal Aid.
Criminal cases are covered by constitutional requirements. If someone faces a situation where she could be incarcerated, she is guaranteed representation by a public defender. In civil matters, an attorney isn't guaranteed. Civil cases concern family law, conflicts over public benefits, housing problems and consumer issues, among other things (i.e. that broken heater and bum landlord). For many, the stacks of forms, the phone calls to civic agencies, working their way through the court systems—it all takes time and might cause frustration, but it's not impossible.
But for others, "they're probably left out in the cold when they're losing their housing or have been subject to predatory lending or can't deal with social service agencies," Carde says. "What if they can't read or can't speak English? They don't understand what documents they have to bring in or how to get those documents." Approximately 13,000 low-income New Mexicans receive assistance from nonprofits that provide civil legal services every year, but 18,000 are turned away due to lack of money and resources.
Although there are 33 counties in the state, Legal Aid can only employ 29 attorneys, given their budget. As of Friday, Oct. 20, there were five open positions. "We had an attorney spot open in Roswell for a year and a half, and we just filled it," says Carde. "We don't really get a very good salary, but the work is good work. The salary does not attract people."
The state's civil legal services system has subsisted for 30 years on a steady diet of federal funding, though that cash flow has been dwindling steadily for years. The 2007 Federal Legal Services Corporation Budget estimates New Mexico's system will loose $200,000 next year.
"Less than 20 percent of the need in New Mexico is being met," says Kim Posich, executive director of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. "It's never been enough." Oftentimes, he says, the services make the difference between whether someone ends up living on the street or in a home.
Take Sylvia Sisneros, for example. The single mother of three kids, Sisneros is attending Santa Fe Community College to get her nursing degree. In August, she was given 30 days to move out of her Santa Fe trailer park. She owns the trailer, but not the land it's on. "We had nowhere to go," she says. "It just hit us at a hard time." Allegations of rule violations by the park's manager resulted in an eviction with a deadline that looked impossible to meet, she says.
An attorney for the park threatened to take her to court. Sisneros knew she couldn't afford a lawyer. "I didn't know what to do," she says. "I thought, 'I'll just go tell the judge the truth.'" With the help of Legal Aid, she was able to work out an agreement with the landlord that extended her eviction deadline to 60 days. She was informed of her rights and what she was and wasn't obligated to fix on the property. She was able to avoid a court situation entirely. "It's good to know something like Legal Aid is there for people who can't afford to pay $100 or $200 an hour for a lawyer," she says.
With the funding dips, things are tight for the state's civil legal service providers. Kathleen Brockel, executive director of Law Access New Mexico, describes the squeeze. The program runs telephone legal help lines across the state, such as the Landlord/Tenant Hotline. When clients call, they speak with one of the 10 attorneys who answer the phone. Two of the lawyers work full-time, and everyone else is either a volunteer or works part-time. The program hears from 600 new clients every month.
These days, when clients call, all 12 phone lines might be busy, says Brockel. If they do get through, if it's determined that they're financially eligible and if their case is relatively simple, Law Access New Mexico can help by advising people how to proceed on their own. Because of the limited staff, the attorneys are often unable to manage a complex case that will require months of attention. In such a situation, clients are often referred to other service programs. "It's getting harder to find places to send them," Brockel says.
The bottom line is that legal help is usually the fastest way to solve a problem, according to Brockel. Otherwise, problems can be left to flounder. Remember the example of the landlord who hasn't fixed the heater? Perhaps the tenant stops paying rent, which leads to a messy legal tangle. If the tenant instead chooses to call the hotline, the issue can be resolved with the proper procedure, Brockel says. Otherwise, situations can get sticky, she notes, citing the fact that the hotlines occasionally hear from unintentional bigamists. "Many people think they're divorced because they've filed for divorce, but they didn't follow it through until the end," she says. "People will call because they've gotten married again."
The New Mexico Commission on Access to Justice submitted a report to the state Supreme Court on March 30 that prompted the high court to adopt the commission's recommendations on April 28. One such recommendation stems from the fact that some court costs can be waived if a person is below a certain income level, but it's been inconsistently applied across the state, Posich says. The state Supreme Court opted to order that those waivers be applied with more regularity and efficiency. The court ordered that forms for actions such as divorce be made more readily available. The court is also encouraging significant funding increases supplied by the state for these nonprofit organizations.
A community of concerned citizens and organizations, including the Center on Law and Poverty, Law Access New Mexico and New Mexico Legal Aid, will be requesting an appropriation of $4 million from the State Legislature next year. Those initial dollars would go to building up the state's capacity to help low-income people in need of civil legal services, says Stacey Leaman, a research and project manager for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. "We do see a need for continuing funding down the line."