Free local legal clinic helps residents understand judicial system, cases

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When Jose Maldonado received a complaint of foreclosure on his home and property in Tomé, he wasn't quite sure what to do.

He didn't know what his options were, what he was required to do or if he should hire an attorney. He just knew he needed some help.

Maldonado was at a loss, until he heard about the free legal clinic held every month at the 13th Judicial District Courthouse. For several years, residents have had the opportunity to find legal help and get answers to their questions from attorneys who volunteer their time and expertise.

Geoff Nims, one of two staff attorneys with the 13th Judicial District Court in Los Lunas, says the goal of the clinic is to assist individuals with legal problems at no cost. He said those who attend the clinic are people who are representing themselves in court involving everything from civil to criminal to family cases.

Along with Nims and Carl Reifsteck, another court staff attorney, several other attorneys volunteer their time each month to assist pro se individuals. Nims said more than 60 people attended July's clinic — an all-time, districtwide record.

Clinics are offered at all three courts in the district, including Valencia, Sandoval and Cibola counties. The clinics in Valencia County are held the second Thursday of each month, and the next clinic will be held on Thursday, Aug. 8.

When the program began in 2006, the clinic averaged only 20 visitors per clinic. Up until 2011, the clinic was held twice a month but the number of days was downsized in 2012, to once a month, to free up staff attorney time for other tasks, Nims said.

According to statistics provided by the court, 459 people visited the free legal clinic in Los Lunas in 2012. Of those, 51 percent were seeking advise for family issues, 18 percent for civil issues and 31 percent for other issues ranging from criminal cases to probate to adoptions.

From January to July of this year, 311 people have sought help from the clinic, 44 percent for family issues, 26 percent for civil issues and 30 percent for other types of cases.

Since the inception of the legal clinic in 2006, more than 3,240 people have taken advantage of the free legal advice.

"For a lot of people, the legal system is mysterious," Nims said. "If you've never had experience in the courts, it's difficult to navigate your way through. Just the vocabulary — the lingo — can be very intimidating to someone. That's why we're here — to help people understand the legal system and give them advice and educate them about their cases,"

Nims makes it clear that the volunteer attorneys are not there to represent those who attend the clinic, just simply to offer advice.

"We're here to try and help people and steer them in the right direction," Nims said. "We don't limit the time we spend with any one person, and the average amount of time we spend with someone is between 15 to 30 minutes."

Some cases are more complicated than others, Nims said, but what's important is that the individual seeking help leaves with a better understanding of their case, the legal system and procedures.

Early Gardner, a volunteer who helps with intake every month, sits at the door welcoming people seeking help. As she takes names and asks individuals about what type of case they have, she invites conversations to put people at ease.

"I think people love this program," Gardner said. "The whole community seems to be happy. They will sit here until they're called, and some people will come back for advice until their issue is settled."

People tend to stream into the large room on the first floor of the district courthouse early. While the clinic doesn't begin until 10 a.m., Nims said he usually starts seeing people at 9 a.m. just so he can get a head start on the day and not leave people waiting too long.

Because of the amount of people who attend the clinic, Nims said the volunteer attorneys are essential to the program. He said there was a time when only two attorneys were needed, but as the word got out about their services, they now need at least five attorneys every month.

"It's really grown a lot," he said. "It's surprised me how many people need our help, and we're willing to help every one of them."

While the open-room setting is not exactly private, Nims said they try to be as discrete as possible with each case. But with people talking all at once in the room, he says it's not a setting in which people can listen in to anyone's case.

"It's a one-on-one setting," Nims said. "We really take our time and listen and try to explain their case and try to give them the best advice we can."

Peter Ortega, a local attorney, has been volunteering with the clinic for five years, beginning when he was an assistant district attorney. He said he began volunteering simply to give something back to the community.

"This is something we need in the community," Ortega said. "When I talk to a (person), I try and find out what's going on, and it usually leads to other issues, such as poverty, disabilities, child support, divorce and so on. From there, we can help, guide them to resources."

Ortega and the other volunteer attorneys see people from all walks of life, he said, dealing with very real issues — family issues, real estate contracts, criminal cases and so on. He said while the New Mexico Bar Association recommends attorneys across the state do some pro bono work, he said he was raised to give back to the community whenever he could.

"I try to help and explain it in lay-people terms," he said. "People really appreciate what we're doing here. It's just a great program that's needed in the community."

Other attorneys who have volunteered their time within the past year, include Chuck Aspinwall, Amanda Frazier, Ann McCartney, Susan McLean, Benny Naranjo, Leisa Richards, Marsha Shasteen, Allen Smith and Pilar Vaile.

Along with giving advice and educating people about the legal process, the clinic also offers free legal forms, including the necessary paperwork for restraining orders, name change, divorce, guardianship, grandparent visitation, response forms, mediation packages, magistrate court filings and free filing forms.

The clinic also offers people a multitude of resources — agencies where they can go to get further assistance, whether it be legal advice, legal counsel or social services.

After speaking with Nims about his foreclosure case, Maldonado said he was grateful for the advice he got. "I'm relieved," he said. "I didn't know what I was going to do. I got my questions answered and a lot of the pressure just disappeared. I will recommend the program. It's great."


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.