How New Mexico DIY Bankruptcy Filers Can Get Cases Filed More Quickly

04 May How New Mexico DIY Bankruptcy Filers Can Get Cases Filed More Quickly

There is to be a new experiment in permitting New Mexican pro se debtors (self-represented debtors) file their bankruptcies electronically. The purpose is to help permit greater access to court, but I suspect another primary purpose is to try to ease some of the burden on court staff, as pro se filers before could take their papers to the clerk’s office, and the clerk’s office would file the papers for them. You see, attorneys must file electronically. Possibly by the end of 2011, pro se debtors will be filing electronically, too.

New Mexico is one of three bankruptcy districts that will be part of the trial project. It’s so new that it hasn’t even been announced yet on the Bankruptcy Court’s web site, but here’s an article announcing it on the ABQJournal Online, with a free trial subscription access if access is otherwise blocked.

As Norman H. Meyer Jr., the Clerk of the Bankruptcy Court, states in the article:

New Mexico is one of three bankruptcy courts selected nationwide to participate in the Pro Se Pathfinder Project, an e-filing program for do-it-yourself bankruptcy filers that’s been compared to Web-based tax preparation software.

New Mexico, where roughly one out of every 10 bankruptcy petitions already is pro se, was chosen for the initial rollout of Pathfinder as representative of a rural state, Meyer said. There’s a scarcity of consumer bankruptcy attorneys in much of the state, which saw 6,569 bankruptcies filed in 2010.

“As a web-based application, it can be brought up in Jal or Clayton,” he said, adding that some planners originally wanted to offer Pathfinder through a kiosk in the lobby of the court clerk’s office in Albuquerque. “We said, in our district, we needed it accessible over the web.”

Also participating in the rollout is California’s central judicial district — the Los Angeles area — where one-third of all bankruptcy petitions are pro se; and New Jersey, where 8 percent are pro se and access to courthouse services is comparatively convenient.

As readers know, I support enabling self-represented people to “DIY” when it comes to certain legal proceedings. (See, e.g., Unbundled legal services, Part I, and Unbundling Legal Services, Part II.) It’s utterly necessary in many state courts, for family practice, because of the overwhelming numbers of people filing without the assistance of lawyers. Unbundling is when a lawyer can help someone with a piece of their legal needs and not be responsible — and not be paid for — handling their other legal needs.

It’s still a very new concept in federal bankruptcy court, and not being easily received, even with the massive increases in bankruptcy filings without attorneys. I agree it’s potentially dangerous for someone to be in a court proceeding with less than full legal advice and assistance. But if that person cannot afford a lawyer for everything relating to the case, what are the options?

There are projects around the country to get more lawyers to perform more pro bono (free) services for low-income persons — for example, my local state court’s (1st Judicial District of New Mexico) Local Pro Bono Committee together with the Santa Fe Community College is presenting a Santa Fe Legal Fair this Saturday (5/7) from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. , providing free consultations in many areas of law touching on the lives of regular people, including bankruptcy and foreclosure. I’ll be there. But, to me, that does little to solve the problem on a structural level.

Unbundling of legal services is increasing of necessity in state courts and will, with time, become more acceptable in the federal bankruptcy court. I’m excited that my bankruptcy court is trying this — the Clerk’s Office is staffed by almost universally friendly and unflappable individuals and there is real intelligence at work there. But … how do I know this? Well, when I was learning to file bankruptcies for my clients — at the time I started there was not electronic filing in the state courts where I practiced — I made some mistakes, actually, some big mistakes, and I found it a frustrating, difficult process to learn how to file. The clerk’s office was really helpful and kind to me.

So, I actually find myself somewhat concerned about the prognosis of pro se electronic filing for something as complicated as bankruptcy schedules and all that must be filed. I wish the clerk’s office well with its efforts and hope the staff will be given big bonuses in whatever form possible when the system goes into effect.

Look at this post about a do-it-yourself assistance program for people being foreclosed on in New Mexico — if you are doing it yourself, you have an extra burden and responsibility to learn what you have to do, and to do it well. Otherwise, you might squander what advantages you have in representing yourself, and even put yourself at risk of harm.

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Jay S. Fleischman is a bankruptcy lawyer with offices in Los Angeles and New York. He can often be found on Google+ and Twitter, where he shares information about consumer protection issues and personal finance.
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