This week, the New Mexico Supreme Court endorsed proposals to expand civil legal services in the state, particularly to lower- and middle-income residents and those living in rural areas.
The proposals were based on recommendations from the New Mexico Supreme Court-established Ad Hoc Licensed Legal Technicians Workgroup, which recently released an Innovation to Address the Access to Justice Gap report.
The report details the state’s stark attorney demographics, which are similar to those reported in Illinois. Lawyers are unevenly distributed across the state, they’re literally or virtually absent in rural counties, and they’re aging and not being replaced by newer attorneys.
The report noted that, “Even an optimistic reading of the averages for New Mexico suggests that less than half of the state’s population had the access to legal services enjoyed by the country as a whole, and this scarcity is concentrated in the state’s rural counties.”
The workgroup made four recommendations to address the state’s access to justice problem. Some are creative and easy to implement; some would involve changes to regulations and require further study.
- Uniform Bar Examination (UBE) recruitment program. The workgroup recommends that the New Mexico Supreme Court recruit qualified attorneys to New Mexico through a UBE score transfer. New Mexico, along with four other states, has the lowest qualifying score for admission to the bar at 260. Those who took the UBE in another state and received a 260 (but not that state’s higher qualifying score) could apply to have their score transferred and begin to practice in New Mexico. According to the workgroup, the UBE recruitment program could “recruit transfer applicants who desire to live and work in a more rural setting.”
- Court Navigators program. The workgroup noted the national proliferation of programs in which trained individuals provide some basic personal assistance to self-represented litigants. There are 23 Navigator programs across the U.S., including the Illinois JusticeCorps. Court navigators don’t hold a law degree but are trained to provide basic information to courthouse users. The workgroup recommends that the New Mexico Supreme Court pilot a program in which navigators “could provide forms, information, option guidance, procedural information, as well as referrals…attending court hearings only to be supportive and not directly addressing the Court unless questioned.”
- Rural Law Opportunity Program. The workgroup recommends that the New Mexico Supreme Court partners with the state bar and the University of New Mexico School of Law to explore a rural law opportunity program, similar to programs launched in South Dakota and by law schools in Nebraska and Arkansas. In conjunction with the Rural Law Opportunity Program, the workgroup advocates for loan forgiveness for lawyers providing services in rural or underserved areas of New Mexico.
- Licensing non-lawyers to perform limited legal work. The workgroup recommends further study on licensing non-lawyers to perform limited legal work. Noting that access to justice doesn’t necessarily equate to access to a lawyer, the workgroup recommends that New Mexico continues to monitor other states that have licensed non-lawyers, like Washington and Utah, noting that each has its benefits and drawbacks. Furthermore, the workgroup recommends market research on whether litigants would use a program, if people would choose a career as a limited license technician (LLT), and whether, even in a rural community, an LLT could earn a living.
The New Mexico report adds to initiatives being developed across the country that expand civil legal services and address the access to justice gap. However, tapping into the recruitment of available talent with a portable UBE score may be a provocative solution. Let’s see what other ideas surface.
Staying up to date on issues impacting the legal profession is vital to your success. Subscribe here to get the Commission’s weekly news delivered to your inbox.