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Legal help when you’re out of luck

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A New Mexico judge knows what to do

When Supreme Court Justice Shannon Bacon was a practicing lawyer, she learned a lot about people who found themselves homeless and the problems they faced.

Before Bacon was on the New Mexico Supreme Court she served as a District Court Judge and before that as a practicing lawyer, who at one point worked at Cuidando Los Ninos in Albuquerque. Her focus at that time was on homeless youth.

In her efforts to champion the Access to Justice Commission, Bacon told the Gallup Sun July 8 about the many civil legal issues people at or below the poverty line can find themselves facing: things like eviction, employment problems, child custody, divorce, government benefit difficulties—all of them legal issues that have nothing to do with a crime.

Bacon said basic human needs and human rights fall into that civil arena where there is no right to a lawyer. She added that people know they are entitled to a lawyer in a criminal case. But “most people assume that the same is true for a civil case and it is not. There is no right to a lawyer in a civil proceeding,” she emphasized.

Those early years working for non-profits focused on homeless youth created a warm spot in her heart when it came to the Access to Justice Commission. “That’s what sparked the passion for me personally,” she said. “It fit my point of view that we should be helping people.”

She told the story of a mother escaping an abusive relationship who took the children with her and suddenly found out that she not only needed to care for them, but also had to provide for her family.

“Now with COVID-19, those kinds of stories are far too numerous to count,” Bacon said. “Businesses have shut down. You lose your income and it has a cascading effect on everything in your life. That often leads to legal problems … You can’t pay rent, get child support, pay bills. You end up in the legal system … and you can’t afford a lawyer.”

Bacon has been the spokesperson for the Access to Justice Commission for about ten years and wants people to know they don’t have to ignore their legal problems. They can reach out and ask for help.

With the pandemic, she and the commission are getting ready for a wave of civil legal issues.

Bacon says the most familiar place people can go for such services is Legal Aid. Another is DNA People’s Legal Services, which helps people in Window Rock, Ariz., and Shiprock and Farmington, N.M.

Bacon told the Sun she plans to apply the lessons from the economic downturn of ten years ago to today.

She said people facing civil legal issues can avail themselves of help right away by calling 833-LGL-HELP. The number is a phone line clearing house to point people with civil legal issues in the right direction.

It is operational throughout the state of New Mexico, and even when it is not staffed, you can leave a message there 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a call back.

By Beth Blakeman
Associate Editor