The Taos County Courthouse can be an intimidating place for the uninitiated, especially for those without the legal counsel to guide them through, but a help desk that opened in its main lobby last October has been pointing many local litigants in the right direction.
Program Specialist Lauren Felts-Salazar can be found behind the desk Monday through Thursday for two hours each day. She fields questions ranging from simple requests, such as where the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office or court clerks can be located, to more complex inquiries, such as how to fill out paperwork when filing for a divorce or a civil lawsuit. Many of her clients choose to forego a lawyer or cannot afford legal counsel, and for some, it will be their first time stepping into a courtroom.
“Self-represented litigants, or pro se parties, have really taken off throughout the nation,” Felts-Salazar said. “So we’re hoping that, while we can’t provide legal advice, the help desk will provide a bit more direction to those parties.”
It’s an important service as no other staffer in the courthouse is available – or advised – to provide guidance on legal matters that can be overwhelming for someone engaged with their very first case.
When filing for a divorce, for example, Felts-Salazar says the court system hands a litigant a 165-page packet that must be completed to move forward with the filing. She can assist with wading through the paperwork, ensuring that litigants understand the language contained in the documents, so they are able to complete paperwork accurately.
“Little steps like that is what we’re really hoping to help people with because – as a pro se party – most of them aren’t familiar with the court,” Felts-Salazar said. “This isn’t a normal, everyday piece of somebody’s life, dealing with the court system. We’re trying to make it more human for them, trying to break the processes down into smaller steps for them.”
Those incremental steps also provide a simultaneous benefit to the court system itself by ensuring that there are no delays once a case reaches the courtroom. Every case is on a clock and must be resolved in a timely manner.
If needed, pro bono legal consultations can also be arranged for clients in 30-minute time blocks. Since October, at least five private attorneys have used a meeting space located behind the desk to fulfill their state-mandated pro bono requirements to assist locals with their cases.
Several computers are also made available to the public. Felts-Salazar said this can be a huge benefit, especially to senior citizens of Taos County.
“It’s been a real service to them,” Felts-Salazar said, “because we can sit down with them and work on it. We can’t complete anything for them, but we can walk them through it and help them as best we can just to become familiar and not be overwhelmed by a computer … that way they’re still complying with the obligation to answer their summons to serve for jury, for example.”
She said the program is the brainchild of Chief Taos District Court Judge Jeff McElroy, who modeled the help desk after a similar program at the Santa Fe District Court, where he once served as a prosecutor.
Since October, the help desk has served 225 people. Moving forward, both Felts-Salazar and McElroy hope it will become an increasingly important part of cases that move through the local courthouse.
“I’d like it to be really an integral part of the case,” Felts-Salazar said. “Every case has a life, from getting filed, to the hearings, to the final resolution – to really make this just a piece of the case as a standard process, not just another step, but just make the public aware that we’re here to help.”
The help desk is open on Mondays from 11 a.m.–1 p.m.; Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 2-4 p.m.; and Thursdays from 11 a.m.-1 p.m.