100% Access to Justice Means Understanding What People Using the Justice System See

Grace Spulak
The legal system can terrify people who are in crisis because of domestic violence, the threat of eviction, or a child custody battle.

The legal system can terrify people who are in crisis because of domestic violence, the threat of eviction, or a child custody battle.

Freeograph via Shutterstock

One hundred percent access to assistance for all people in New Mexico with civil legal needs—sounds like a tall order? Wondering what this means? For the past year and a half, the New Mexico Commission on Access to Justice (ATJ) has been grappling with these questions as we work to develop a strategic plan using the National Center for State Courts’ Justice for All framework.

Access for Everyone

New Mexico’s ATJ was formed in 2004. It is one of the earliest of such commissions nationwide to address people’s inability to hire a lawyer or to understand the court process. There are now similar commissions in 38 states. These collaborative bodies consist of courts, the bar, civil legal aid providers, and other stakeholders. They work together to remove barriers to civil justice, particularly for people who are low-income or are otherwise disadvantaged. The New Mexico ATJ has increased pro bono representation and made our court process more understandable by creating better forms and online resources.

Nevertheless, the civil legal system can still baffle and often terrify people who have never been to court, studied law, and yet, are in crisis because of domestic violence, the threat of losing their home, or trying to establish custody of their child.

One of the unique elements of the Justice for All model is an emphasis on community engagement. We believe we can use community engagement to revolutionize how people interact with our justice system. We recognize that if we want to make our system truly about justice, we need to understand how the people it is supposed to serve see that system.

Listen to and Respect the Experiences of Justice System Users

Since Justice for All’s inception, one of New Mexico ATJ’s key goals and guiding principles has been to make the experiences of people using the legal system central to our planning. We recognize that we cannot make the system better if we do not understand the barriers our users face. To get information about these barriers, the ATJ held a series of community listening sessions around the state. We asked the people on the front lines what barriers their clients faced when they tried to go to court.

Forms we thought were simple were confusing to many people. People consider courts frightening. We realized we needed to obtain information directly from people who had tried to use the court system to resolve their civil legal problems. We needed a way to incorporate their perspectives into our planning consistently. To achieve this, we hired a community engagement consultant to advise us on how to: (1) obtain useful input from system users, and (2) use this input to transform our courts. We launched a media campaign to help the public understand why civil legal aid is critical and to let people know how to access help when they have a civil legal problem.

A fair and equitable justice system benefits everyone no matter their income level or position in a legal case. We all have a role in ensuring our justice system is fair and equitable. This means asking clients how they view the legal system. This means taking on pro bono work. This means asking questions about how our court rules and statutes are structured. Most of all, this means listening to the people who are using the court system to try to resolve their civil legal problems.

Get more information on New Mexico’s ATJ. See if your state has an Access to Justice Commission. Ask about ways to get involved if you are interested.

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Grace Spulak

Grace Spulak is the New Mexico Access to Justice Program’s staff attorney. She may be reached at aocgcs@nmcourts.gov.