Public health orders restricting some businesses and public gatherings are slowly being lifted, but the New Mexico Supreme Court’s restrictions on eviction proceedings and limitations on civil cases in general are still in place. State Supreme Court Justice Shannon Bacon said she expects an increase of civil cases once courts are fully functioning.
“What we’re anticipating with the health pandemic and the downturn of the economy and a really high unemployment rate are issues that really raise their head in the same way they did in 2008 and 2009 with the recession,” Bacon said. “So we’re reaching back in time to our experience then and trying to anticipate better what’s going to happen now.”
Bacon, the Supreme Court liaison to the New Mexico Commission on Access to Justice, wants the public to know that even with limited financial resources, people can find legal help for civil cases. Unlike criminal cases, defendants in civil suits are not automatically afforded a lawyer.
While she said she doesn’t know when the Supreme Court will lift the stay on eviction proceedings, she is encouraging tenants anticipating or worried about the future of their housing to be proactive. She said she hopes tenants and landlords can come up with a “creative” solution to work out rent payment problems. But, Bacon said, if tenants are taken to court over rent issues, they may want to consider legal help.
“I think it is a reasonable thing for folks, that if they believe that they’re going to be in a position to fight to keep their residence, that talking to a lawyer is a good idea,” Bacon said.
She said there is already a slight increase in domestic violence—restraining orders are a civil court matter—and child custody, corresponding to the loosening of public health orders.
“We have been waiting to see those numbers go up and in fact they are starting to increase,” Bacon said.
There are a number of organizations that offer free or discounted legal services across the state for those who qualify, but Bacon said the first step is to make contact and not avoid the situation.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out to, to pick up the phone, make that phone call,” Bacon said. “Burying your head in the sand just makes things more complicated and more difficult.”
But besides spreading the word on free legal services, the commission and Bacon are putting out the call for lawyers willing to do pro bono work, or work without charging fees.
Earlier this year, a Supreme Court-convened task force determined New Mexico is in the middle of a lawyer shortage.
“The lack of lawyers in New Mexico coupled with the need to make sure people are aware and knowledgeable about services that are available to them are hand-in-glove,” Bacon said.
She said New Mexico has large “legal deserts” where there is little to no options for legal representation in civil matters. For instance, she said, there are three counties without a single lawyer who isn’t a prosecutor or public defender and more than ⅓ of the state’s counties have ten or fewer lawyers.
“That’s a critical piece to this,” she said. “It’s not only the service providers, but also getting lawyers to step up to the plate and say, ‘I’ll take some cases and I’ll help out.’”
Below is a list of organizations offering legal services.