In some civil legal cases it might be prudent to consider self-representation or arbitration, but figuring out how to start can be a difficult task. Luckily, locals have the opportunity to reach out to New Mexico Courts and find a helping hand.
We sat down with Aja Brooks, Director of the Center for Self-Help and Dispute Resolution at Second Judicial District Court in Bernalillo County, to discuss the program and how it can help citizens.
The Paper.: What does the Center for Self-Help and Dispute Resolution do?
Brooks: Our center helps people who are representing themselves in court. We help them navigate the legal system by assisting them with procedural information, court forms and directions. We have a self-help window at the Second Judicial District Courthouse at 400 Lomas Blvd. NW in Room 134 where people can walk in and get assistance from our team of paralegals. Our self-help hours are 9am until 4pm, Monday through Friday.
We also provide dispute resolution assistance to the court. We provide assistance with the arbitration program and the settlement facilitation program that the court has. Both of those programs, to some degree, involve assigning mediators or settlement facilitators or arbitrators to cases to help lessen the judges’ caseloads and to also provide a different avenue for the resolution of a case.
One of the things we do is provide legal resources to the public, and we let them know about any upcoming opportunities to receive legal assistance. One really great opportunity that is coming up soon is a Telephonic Expungement Clinic that will be held by New Mexico Legal Aid’s Volunteer Attorney Program on Aug. 18. Interested readers can call 877-266-9861 between 1pm and 4pm on that day.
When should someone consider representing themselves instead of hiring a professional lawyer?
That’s going to be something to consider on a case-by-case basis. There are certain areas of the law that are a little bit easier to navigate, but it’s all going to depend on the situation. For instance, you can have a very straightforward divorce case with no children, where the parties are in agreement on everything and able to present a stipulated agreement to the court. You can also have the same area of law—a divorce with no children—where the parties are not in agreement and need to have discussions back and forth about how they’re going to split up a property or any sorts of debts. I think the decision to get an attorney is going to depend on the complexity of the case and the ability for the parties to come to some sort of agreement in certain situations.
Are there any limitations to when you can and can’t get help representing yourself?
Our self-help center assists with civil legal issues only. We don’t assist with criminal issues. I used to work at the public defender’s office and so I used to represent people who were charged with a number of different crimes, and the public defender’s office provides representation for people who are indigent or low-income and who qualify for an attorney to represent them in those situations. In most of those situations—there are exceptions—but most people are represented by attorneys. They are not representing themselves in court.
However, in civil law, there are a number of different areas where people will be representing themselves. It’s not as uncommon in civil legal areas to see people representing themselves.
You mentioned that you also help direct people toward alternative methods of resolving disputes. Could you go over some of those?
We have our arbitration program. Most of the cases that we see through that program are debt and money-due cases such as credit card debt cases or auto accident cases where there’s money owed. Any cases that are under the amount of $50,000 are within our jurisdiction.
What will happen with many of those cases is an arbitrator will be chosen to listen to both sides and to make a determination of who gets what. We have an arbitration pool in the second Judicial District Court that is made up of attorneys who live and or work in Bernalillo County and have at least five years of legal practice. Those folks are included in the arbitration pool and are assigned cases through the pool on a rolling basis. So if you’re an attorney with five years or more in practice, and you live and/or work in Bernalillo County, you could be appointed as an arbitrator.
When is arbitration a better alternative to seeing a judge?
It’s a little bit shorter timeline. Sometimes the judges’ caseloads get very heavy. This is a way for people to be seen by a neutral mediator in a more expeditious way.
We also have a settlement facilitation program. That program is similar, but the cases will also go to a settlement facilitator and those are normally attorneys with pretty extensive legal knowledge or even retired judges who will facilitate a case between two parties. Specifically, we have a foreclosure settlement program here at the Second Judicial District Court.
We’re also offering services to the Third Judicial District Court [Doña Ana County] in cases where a homeowner is in foreclosure, and they need to work with the bank or the creditor to figure out a way to try and keep their home or to exit gracefully from the home. There’s a number of different ways that the case can work out. But we have several facilitators in-house who work for the court and are able to facilitate those cases.
Are there any special services that you’d like to highlight for our readers?
We have a scribing program through the Second Judicial District Court. It’s for people with low literacy or with disabilities—or maybe who speak English as a second language—to assist them with actually filling out their forms. We can’t give them any legal advice, of course. We can’t tell them what to put in the forms, but we can assist them. We have volunteers from an organization called Read West, who will help fill in forms with the information that the customers give us.
The self-help window is open with limited staff at the Courthouse. If you would like to receive help over the phone, please call (505) 841-6702 or (505) 841-7579 from 9am until 4pm or via email firstname.lastname@example.org. Legal Forms/Packets are available at the Second Judicial District Court (1st Floor), by email, or at seconddistrictcourt.nmcourts.gov.