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The New Mexico Access to Justice Commission, as a commission of the New Mexico Supreme Court, sets priorities for civil legal providers around the state, makes recommendations to the Supreme Court to improve court services, and troubleshoots legal service issues statewide as they arise. The ATJ Commission regularly provides information about issues important to civil legal needs in New Mexico in the Bar Bulletin to keep members of the bar up-to-date.
Last year, Daniel Chavez1 found himself in a terrifying position. His adult daughter had unexpectedly died leaving behind her daughter and Daniel’s granddaughter, Emily. While Daniel had cared for and parented Emily since she was an infant as a result of his daughter’s long-time drug use, he had always had his daughter’s permission and a power of attorney to allow him to take care of Emily. Emily’s father had been minimally involved with her life, and had a significant history of criminal conduct, including child abuse. After the death of Daniel’s daughter, he heard from Emily’s father who informed him he was going to take Emily from him because she was his daughter. Emily, now 12 years old, had only known Daniel as her parent and his home was her only home. Daniel was scared and knew he had to do something to protect Emily and to give him legal authority over her…but he did not know what to do.
Through word of mouth and family recommendations, Daniel contacted attorneys, Julio Romero and Mike Hart. “We are not family law attorneys – we do personal injury and civil rights litigation – but this grandfather needed help.”
Mike and Julio agreed to help Daniel and entered into a limited scope of representation agreement in which they agreed to represent him for the sole purpose of helping him seek guardianship of Emily. Also, Daniel did not have the means to pay for legal help. Mike and Julio agreed to take the case on pro bono.
As neither Mike nor Julio were experienced family law attorneys, they did what lawyers often do when they are in unfamiliar territory – they found others who do have expertise in this area to get assistance. The lawyers at Pegasus Legal Services for Children were an incredible resource who gave sample pleadings, suggestions, and pointers on the process. Julio explained, “I was a little nervous [going outside of my normal practice]. But at the end of the day, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of people like Daniel Chavez – they are even more nervous and the court process seems really scary. So, my nervousness paled in comparison to Daniel’s and it encouraged me to want to step in to help”.
Daniel initially contacted Mike and Julio at the beginning of June, 2021. Over the summer, evidence was collected, witness interviews were completed and by the end of September, 2021, after a full contested evidentiary hearing, the Court signed an order granting Daniel permanent Kinship Guardianship over Emily. Within just a few months, Daniel had the legal protection he needed – not just to enroll Emily in school and get her medical treatment, but to give him the ability to have police or CYFD help him should Emily’s father ever attempt to take her. For Daniel, this piece of paper signed by a judge enabled Emily to have stability, consistency, and to be free from worry that she would be taken away from the only home she had always known.
“This [legal kinship guardianship] opened up a whole new way of life for my granddaughter.” – Daniel Chavez
For Mike and Julio, they were able to resolve a discrete legal matter for Daniel within a relatively short period of time. “It did not feel overwhelming,” Julio explained, “because we have the right culture here at the firm.” For Mike and Julio, having partners who believe pro bono work is important eased the stress as it became a priority case within the office where other lawyers would have no problem stepping in and covering other matters to ensure the demands of this case were met.
“Working on a case outside of my general practice actually helped with my other cases. In going back to studying and learning a particular statute from the beginning, I gained a different perspective which carried over to the way I thought about and worked on my other cases.” – Julio Romero
This pro bono case, despite not ultimately requiring a lot of work and time, became very important to Mike, Julio and their firm. “We spend a lot of our time working on civil rights and personal injury matters and typically are retained after terrible things have already happened. Helping Daniel obtain legal protection for Emily and giving him that legal status made us feel like we were working to prevent a bad thing from happening to this child.” According to Mike, with more lawyers providing help like this to children who need safe homes, fewer children are at risk of abuse and neglect.
“As attorneys, we are given special access to a system that can dramatically improve the lives of people in our community. We have a duty to acknowledge our privilege and use it to help those in need.” – Mike Hart
How Can I Help?
1. Sign up with the Volunteer Attorney Program (“VAP”). This is a program run by New Mexico Legal Aid in partnership with the State Bar of New Mexico and New Mexico’s 13 Judicial District Pro Bono Committees that coordinates private attorneys to volunteer to provide free civil legal services to low-income New Mexicans. Contact the VAP at 1-866-416-1922.
2. Say “yes”. When you are contacted by a person in need of civil legal services at work or through your community, don’t
immediately respond with “I don’t do that kind of law.” Consider whether, with the support of persons who have expertise in this area, this is something that you could do and truly bring some relief to this person. Resources to help you navigate legal issues involving family law, landlord-tenant/housing, public benefits, expungement, unemployment, consumer/bankruptcy, wills/probate, contracts, and immigration can be found at: https://www.sbnm.org/For-Public/Other-Legal-Service-Providers
3. Support Your Partners/Associates. Create a culture at your office in which pro bono legal assistance is part of the everyday practice at the firm. When the lawyers at your office know that pro bono cases are treated with the same importance as the feegenerating cases, they will better serve our community and will do it well.
1 The names have been changed in this publication to protect the privacy of this family. This publication was published with the permission of the family.
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