Pioneers of New Mexico’s court scribe program discuss how the program makes the courts more accessible on the latest episode of LSC’s “Talk Justice.”Language access has long been a priority of New Mexico courts, but the recent addition of court scribes has taken this push for court accessibility to new levels. The scribing initiative allows people in qualifying situations to make an appointment with court staff or a trained volunteer who assists them in filling out their legal forms.
Paula Couselo-Findikoglu: So we see filling out court forms, which is fundamental part for self-represented litigants to be able to meaningfully participate in their case. If you can’t do that, if you cannot fill out a court form, you cannot even get started.
Intro: Equal access to justice is a core American value. In each episode of Talk Justice, an LSC Podcast, we will explore ways to expand access to justice and illustrate why it is important to the legal community, business, government, and the general public. Talk Justice is sponsored by The Leaders Council of the Legal Services Corporation.
Molly McDonough: Hello, I’m Molly McDonough. I’ve spent my career as a legal affairs journalist and communications professional. I have a special interest in exploring how our systems can more effectively meet the legal needs of underserved populations, I especially enjoy speaking with leaders and innovators in this space. Today, I’m speaking with two guests who are working to improve language and ability access to the courts.
Paula Couselo-Findikoglu serves as the Director of Education at the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts. She served as the Court Services Deputy Division Director until recently and as the Senior Statewide Language Access Program Manager until 2021. The 2020 Access to Justice Index, published by the National Center for Access to Justice, ranked the New Mexico Judiciary’s Language Access Program under her direction, number one in the nation. Paula is a nationally recognized expert in the language access field and has spearheaded multiple initiatives and technologies to advance court access for LEP and low literacy individuals and people with disabilities interacting with the New Mexico State Courts.
Peggy Cadwell is the Statewide ADA Title II Coordinator under the Legal Division for the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts, where she is responsible for the development and implementation of the ADA Title II program in the New Mexico Courts and the implementation of standards and strict review of policies and procedures, best practices, and guidelines. Peggy became a court certified Spanish interpreter for the State of New Mexico in 1999 and was an instrumental member of the team that helped New Mexico rank number one in the A to J Index for language access. A member of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters, Peggy specializes in legal interpreting and holds certifications in medical technology and financial interpreting. She joined the faculty of the National Judicial College in 2014 and is a national presenter on topics relating to court interpreting, the ADA, and the provision of accommodations in the legal setting.
Welcome, Paula and Peggy. It’s great to have you here today on Talk Justice.
Peggy Cadwell: Thank you, Molly.
Paula Couselo-Findikoglu: Thank you. Thank you for having us, Molly.
Molly McDonough: As we mentioned in your bios, New Mexico Courts consistently rank high when it comes to language access. So I want to explore why that is and understand the difference language access can mean for individuals using the court system.
Paula Couselo-Findikoglu: Thank you, Molly, again for your interest in our program. That’s something that we’re very proud of and certainly has made a significant impact in the lives of the people who use the program. So in terms of my role, as you pointed out, I am currently the Director of Court Education with the New Mexico Judiciary, and previously I served as the Court Services Deputy Division Director. Before that, I was the Senior Statewide Language Access Program Manager for several years up until 2021. And New Mexico is a pretty diverse state. Approximately 36% of the state’s population speaks a language other than English at home. Obviously, Spanish is at the top of the list, followed by Navajo or Dine, followed by Pueblo languages such as Caris, Tewa, Tiwa, Towa, and Zuni. And these are Native American languages primarily of oral tradition.
The truth is, there are overall approximately 92 different languages other than English that are spoken at home by New Mexicans every day. And we have 23 federally recognized tribes, including the Navajo, Mescalero and Jicarilla Apache nations. So we are, as you can see, a pretty diverse state. We also have a significant LEP population or population with limited English proficiency. 10% of the population report speaking English less than very well, and 8.1% of the population are LEP speakers of Spanish, versus 5.7% nationally.
And so, all this incredible diversity is reflected in our state’s rich cultural life and customs and food, if you visit New Mexico. And it’s also reflected in our state’s constitution, as New Mexico is the only state in the country, to our knowledge at least, in which citizens are not required to read, speak, or write the English or Spanish languages to serve in our juries. So we do provide interpreters for jurors on a daily basis, and this unique provision has been in our constitution since 1911. So all this diversity and richness and cultural richness in our state is what led us to create different initiatives to make sure that people have adequate access to our courts.
Molly McDonough: Thank you. I appreciate you setting the stage there. Peggy, can you talk a little bit about your role and especially your responsibilities when it comes to the intersection of disability access and access to justice or access to the courts?
Peggy Cadwell: Sure. Molly, thank you again for the opportunity to tell us a little bit about what’s going on in New Mexico. My role as an ADA Title II Coordinator actually translates into a lot of education and a lot of creating awareness for all of our partners and courts and our employees. When it comes to the provision of services or accommodations in the courts, there’s a lot that goes into, a lot of considerations that goes into making sure that we provide the correct accommodations for individuals with disabilities. And so, my role has been really clearly defined from the beginning as instrumental when it comes to creating understanding of what that looks like and what it looks like for our courts every day and what it looks like for individuals who come and visit our courts.
Molly McDonough: This is an incredible number of languages that Paula mentioned earlier, and on top of that, access issues related to abilities and such a rich history with the jury program. I’m wondering if you can talk, Paula, start us off with describing the genesis for the scribing program, which is very different than providing interpreters.
Paula Couselo-Findikoglu: Yes, and they are different, but they’re all connected. I think we started with identifying the need for the program. We saw that there was a need in the community. We just didn’t know the extent of it. So we see filling out court forms, which is basically a fundamental part for self-represented litigants to be able to meaningfully participate in their case. And we took a look at that, at that step, that initial step. I want to get started with this case. I need to fill out this court form. And let’s think about it. If you can’t do that, if you cannot fill out a court form, you cannot even get started.
Molly McDonough: Right. So I just wanted to say this in particular. We’ve talked a lot on this program about plain language and other issues of ways to make that easier, but at some point, or more accessible, at least. But if there are other barriers to filling out those forms, even if you have the best positioned forms that you can come up with, there still may be a gap. And it seems like what you’ve done here is identify how to address that need.
Paula Couselo-Findikoglu: Yeah, absolutely. And you talked about barriers, so think of an individual with limited English proficiency that’s also going to have a cultural barrier because language and culture cannot be separated. But they also have a different legal system in their country, and they have a different level of trust in the legal system, quite possibly. Right? So you bring all that into the mix for the LEP population and what can we do to assist them with court forms? And let’s talk about people with disabilities. That’s Bay’s Area. But one in four adults has a disability in New Mexico. That’s pretty much the national average. So cognitive disabilities and motor disabilities being at the top here in New Mexico. So how can people who have a disability of that nature access our courts, access court forms, and understand the legal process and really have meaningful participation. In terms of literacy, New Mexico is not doing well and actually the national average is not good either.
So 46% of the state’s population here in New Mexico reads at or below the fifth grade level. So think about understanding what court forms. A lot of times, as you pointed out, Molly, these are pretty complex if they’re not in plain language, what that looks like for a person with limited literacy. And we forget about the digital divide sometimes, right? So we have a variety of services that are provided online or where people need to go online to fill out a questionnaire, like jurors, for example. But what does that look like to a person who has never used a computer or doesn’t have Internet connection? Certain counties in New Mexico, it goes up to as high as 60% in terms of people who do not have access to the Internet.
So you bring all that into the mix, and all these factors really impact how people access our courts, how they understand legal proceedings, and how they understand really what they’re supposed to do when they’re given a court order. And we talked about cultural barriers as well, and I think that these cultural barriers apply to all populations. There’s a stigma also associated with low literacy for people it’s hard to admit that they can’t really understand what they’re reading, and so I think we need to be cognizant and respectful of where people are coming from to be able to serve them well.
Molly McDonough: So I understand you started the scribing program in two areas in the state. Can you talk a little bit about how the pilot went and how the program developed through the pilot programs?
Paula Couselo-Findikoglu: Yeah, so the pilot programs were very successful. They helped us better understand where people were coming from, what kind of needs they have to really further develop the scribing program itself. And with that, we requested and received funding from the State Justice Institute to receive technical assistance from the National Center for State Courts in order to develop community outreach materials, training materials, videos, as well as be able to provide the courts with a facilitation guide for them to be able to use the materials. So a litigant will come to the courthouse. The need is identified. It could be because the court staff identifies that the person or sees that the person in front of them is not being able to fill out the form, or a lot of times the litigants will say, really, I just can’t do this. So they can schedule an appointment with a court staff. We’ll go over the forms, they will read the forms, and they will fill out the forms based on what the litigant is saying in the exact litigant’s words. So there’s no editing, there’s no additions, there’s no legal advice, for sure. It’s basically assisting a person with that fundamental piece of being able to write in the answers to the questions.
Peggy Cadwell: Paula is correct. That is pretty much how the program has been working. As we’re expanding the pilots now to be programs in every district in New Mexico, we’re actually working with each individual district to try to pinpoint exactly what this is going to look like at their districts and within their counties and to try to address those needs. And so, we’ll have individuals who are able to call the court and make an appointment and just come in at a designated time. And so, we do sort of an assessment with them to try to figure out what’s the need and what type of case they have in the court. And so, we’ll be able to tell them things like, well, for this case it looks like you might want to bring any type of information you have from previous cases or birth certificates or whatever is needed for those forms. For some individuals we stress the need to have the services available on demand as they come into the courts to make sure that we are complying with effective communication and with Title II as well as with any need that could be really important and related to important matters in the lives and have devastating consequences sometimes. And so, we created what is called a statement of need that the individual assigns and fills out along with the help of a scriber that basically says that they qualified under category for the services and that the services were provided, that the forms were read to them and the person providing the services also signs the document.
Currently the program works for self-represented litigants that qualified because they may have low literacy levels, as Paula was mentioning. They might be limited English speakers, they might have a disability, or for those areas in which there are very limited access to a computer or to the Internet.
Molly McDonough: So Paula, you mentioned that one of the biggest parts of this program is outreach and making sure that people know that this is available. Where are you seeing the referrals coming from? Are you seeing those from clerks or judges or attorneys? I’m just curious. I’m assuming could be a mix of all of those things.
Paula Couselo-Findikoglu: We are working closely with the Access to Justice Commission here in New Mexico to make sure that we reach out to libraries, advocacy organizations and different community-based organizations to make sure that they know that the service is available. We work with domestic violence shelters, for example, and domestic violence shelters that work with the immigrant population as well because we know that they struggle the most when they need it the most in terms of being able to get help with filling out forms. So we have done a number of webinars and we meet with different organizations here in New Mexico on a regular basis to make sure that we let them know that the services are available.
Molly McDonough: Has any of that outreach changed as you start implementing the program more broadly in terms of — it sounds like you’re going straight to as much direct access as you can to the organizations that are seeing or working directly with people who may have the need.
Paula Couselo-Findikoglu: You know, that’s a really good question because when we’re talking about small communities in rural areas, we also need to take into account word of mouth. So somebody goes to the courthouse, they are able to get this assistance, and then they tell their friends, they tell their family members. And so, that is actually a powerful tool as well for rural communities. Obviously, we do have this program available online as well so that the public can see that the service is available. But I think, again, when it comes to some of these areas where the program is needed the most, or with jurors, for example, in the southeast, that was a success story that we were not expecting. The program was actually used the most, and I think it still is, with jurors versus self-represented litigants, just because filling out a questionnaire, the jury questionnaire, that’s pretty long here in New Mexico, when you have to do it on your phone, it might be complicated to do. And if you have to pull out a laptop, well, not everybody has a laptop, not everybody has access to the Internet or knows how to get online, and so they call the court and the court is able to help them that way. We also have technology that can help with that as well, but that would be probably a different question.
Molly McDonough: I expect that some of these needs and referrals and word of mouth, all of that changes by area, whether it’s an urban, rural area. Are there other kind of differentiators you’ve been seeing?
Paula Couselo-Findikoglu: I would have to say, when we look at Native American communities, for example, Navajo users. When we started this conversation, we talked about interpreters, and then I said it’s all connected, right? So, for example, in the northwest of our state, we have what we call language access specialists. Well, we have them all over the state. We have over 150 certified bilingual staff that provide language access services outside the courtroom. But in the northwest, we have Navajo language access specialists, and they’re brilliant at providing core access and providing services to the Navajo population so they’re able to assist individuals with their forms in the language, in their culture, and making them feel a lot more welcome and kind of decrease that stress level that everybody brings to the courthouse.
Molly McDonough: Peggy, with some of the programs you’ve been working on, what have you noticed with the implementation of this particular program, at least in the toolbox that you’re able to use?
Peggy Cadwell: Well, I have to say is what has really been surprising is how positive it has been for everyone involved, not only for the core user that needs the help, but actually, our employees are really excited to help provide these services for the community. And so, that has been such a huge plus for this program and trying to expand those services across the state, the ability to have employees who are very committed to this and who want to help their communities, and then they understand the need. And so, we’ve seen just fabulous response from not only the community, but the employees and what they see and how they’re able to help people move their cases forward. And so, a lot of education and a lot of hard work has gone into these efforts, but they’re really already paying off in just incredible ways.
Molly McDonough: Yeah, I’m just struck by just providing the framework makes this possible, but it does seem like an incredibly people intensive project, so I’m wondering how you’re scaling this.
Peggy Cadwell: So I think our efforts started a long time ago with what we were doing and what we were trying to do. A lot of the model that we’re following is the same model that we had with language access to try to provide a lot of understanding of what our needs are in our communities. From my perspective, also to begin and bring an understanding of what it looks like for somebody who has a disability to come into the court or to even to try to access the court, and try to understand those forms or try to get them in alternative formats. So creating an understanding for each individual district of what that looks like for them and why it’s so difficult sometimes to have access to our services was actually a huge part of this process. I have to say that having the full support of our Supreme Court has been definitely what has created a huge change for us. We have a Supreme Court that really understands why this is so important, why this is necessary, and they’re committed to making sure that this works and that we’re able to provide these services, and so they’ve been really helpful and very supportive in making sure that we provide this type of access for New Mexicans.
Molly McDonough: Paula, do you have anything to add there? I know you hinted earlier about some tech solutions that you’re also working with in these areas.
Paula Couselo-Findikoglu: Right. So, I think in terms of technology, things like speech to text and text to speech can help bridge those barriers for users who are not able to read or understand written texts. We currently have these technologies in place in our self-service kiosks, courthouse kiosks, and that is where litigants can actually find the forms and fill in them out. So we’re looking at different possibilities for how to integrate services and technologies, but let me give you an example of what we are doing in one of our courts. That would be in the Dona Ana County, which is border county. So it has a pretty significant LEP population. So what we did there is because we know that whenever we have a jury trial, we’re going to get LEP jurors, we incorporated the jury questionnaire to our kiosk. And with that, individuals are able to fill out those forms through the kiosk with the assistance of court staff who would otherwise have to maybe do it in a piece of paper and then have to input that information into a computer. So when we talk about literacy, when we talk about language barriers, when we talk about filling up court forms, there are a lot of gray areas and there are a lot of nuances to what we do, and I think it’s the combination of services of having, yes, having technology, but also having the right staff and properly trained staff and bilingual staff being able to help and make it all work.
Molly McDonough: You mentioned the kiosks. So then these are staffed within the courthouses currently, or do you have them outside the courts as well?
Paula Couselo-Findikoglu: We have them in the courthouse. We are looking at potentially having a kiosk outside of the courthouse sort of as a door or a window to our court so that litigants don’t have to come to the courthouse. So think about, for example, a victim or a survivor of domestic violence and the person is an immigrant and might not feel comfortable coming to the courthouse for a variety of reasons. Well, what if we were to put that kiosk at a shelter and provide that service there? Right? So these are things that we’re just thinking about and exploring, but there are many, many possibilities.
Molly McDonough: And you mentioned you’ve received some tech assistance from the National Center for State Courts, and I think you received grant funding from the State Justice Institute. Are there other partners that have been involved in helping develop these programs and the Supreme Court support?
Paula Couselo-Findikoglu: Right, so technical assistance from the National Center for State Courts, that’s really what allowed us to standardize our training materials, our outreach materials, and really making sure that we have the same level of service statewide. The funding from the State Justice Institute, obviously, the support from the Supreme Court, but we also worked with ReadWest, which is a literacy organization in Albuquerque, that’s a metropolitan area, and we partnered up with them so that we could work with volunteers to be able to assist with providing scribing services. So basically, volunteers would, at the time when we did the pilot, partner up with staff to be able to provide those services. And as I mentioned earlier, domestic violence shelters as well, and so, for example, we worked with Enlace Comunitario, which is a domestic violence shelter also in Albuquerque, and they do amazing work with the immigrant population and domestic violence survivors just to make sure that they knew about the project and they helped us develop a lot of the guidelines of how we should approach filling up courthouse in domestic violence situations.
Molly McDonough: You’ve talked a little bit about who’s using the scribing services so far, but it’s interesting that this seems like the scribing program seems to have come from your long standing interpreter program and language needs that were identified through that program, but since you’ve launched this and are starting to expand it, are you seeing other things, especially as you’re seeing engagement with those eager to implement the program? Are you seeing other needs and gaps that you’re eager to fill?
Paula Couselo-Findikoglu: Well, I think kind of going back to where it all started, why language access and the jurors? We saw this with jurors who would come for jury duty. And yes, they had an interpreter, but no, they did not know how to fill out a questionnaire, even if the questionnaire was in Spanish, because we’ve provided translation services as well. So it didn’t matter which language the questionnaire was in, they were not able to fill it out. So what happened at the time? The interpreter would help them out filling out those forms.
We also saw something similar with individuals who are deaf and they are proficient in American Sign Language, but that’s not their first or primary language. So we started seeing that need, and then that’s what kind of prompted us to look into literacy and other components for the scribing program. In terms of things that we did not expect, certainly the jurors, the response that we’ve gotten from jurors that are in the sort of they get caught in the digital divide because we always thought, okay, somebody with a disability, somebody with a language barrier, literacy, but how about people who do not have access to the Internet and they’re asked to fill out this thing online? And they want to serve, they want to come to the courthouse, but they see technology as a barrier. So I think that was really unexpected. In terms of gaps, that new gaps that we have seen, I don’t think one really stands out, but I’m sure that I always see this as there’s always room for improvement. I believe in the Kaizen method and the continuous improvement model. So I think that you always circle back and you see, how are we doing? What are we missing? Talking with the stakeholders, talking with the users of the service and see what is it that we can improve?
Molly McDonough: Peggy, how about you? Anything you’re seeing that raised issues or surprises? I think you mentioned earlier, just the enthusiasm. And I think creating that framework can also lead to new ideas that surely have come up.
Peggy Cadwell: Yeah, that was definitely a great surprise for us and a happy one. I think that we began seeing actually what it truly means to be able to provide those services for our communities. In terms of we’ll have somebody come into the court who’s been waiting to fill out their paperwork to get divorced for 14 years, and they were just finally able to do it, or families that were hoping to who tried over and over again to fill out paperwork to adopt their grandchildren after many years of trying, and so after many times of trying and bringing in their paperwork, and it was wrong, they’d have to go back, back and forth. And so, seeing those results, I think, has been more of a reinforcement that what we’re doing is the right thing and that as we move forward, we will continue to learn from our needs are and what that looks like in order to help the community, in order also for us to be more adept at changing and being more flexible and understanding.
I think one of the other positive things that we have seen is that it has really translated into a better flow of how these things work. So before, as I mentioned, some of these cases would have to come back several times because they were able to get somebody to help them with a form, but they had the wrong form, or they were able to fill out a form, and it was not done so correctly. And so, it’s created a better flow in terms of being able to move your case forward in the court, which results in better scheduling for judges, for courts. If you have a case that shows up and they have everything that they need, then you can start moving forward with your case, which was probably not the case for them before.
Molly McDonough: Surely, you’ve received some interest in other states or jurisdictions. At this point, I’m wondering, especially with a partner like the National Center for State Courts where they helped with the standardization and some of the materials, are you getting overtures or anybody asking for you to help them or guide them on developing similar programs in other states?
Peggy Cadwell: So the modules that were created are actually available to anybody who may want to use them and they can be adapted to the specific needs that they may have. We have had a lot of states reaching out for information and providing this type of information on how the program is working and how they would be able then to have those services available in their courts.
Molly McDonough: It seems like it can’t quite be cookie cutter, though, as Paula set the context earlier, it really must depend on kind of what the needs are in each jurisdiction. Even in New Mexico, so many different needs by region.
Peggy Cadwell: Yes. Which really translates into having our employees be the champions for a lot of this, because they understand their communities, they know what this looks like, they understand that there might not be certain access. They know that this person lives here and there’s not really that great of internet access, and so they understand those needs a little bit better than we would. So it requires some flexibility and adaptability and us trying to understand how we can improve those services at every district level.
Molly McDonough: Paula, do you have anything to close out with? Any recommendations for how to learn more about your program and how maybe to replicate this elsewhere?
Paula Couselo-Findikoglu: Well, as Peggy mentioned, we have a lot of materials and resources that other states can use. We’re happy to share our lessons learned throughout the years. I think the National Center is a great place to get technical assistance from because sometimes getting started in a project like this could seem daunting, so getting some experts on board might be a good thing. I think overall best thing that we can do as court administrators is, and really it’s our responsibility, is to look at our communities and see where the needs are and try to address any gaps in service in order to improve access to justice. I think it really starts with us being able to listen to our communities and community needs.
Molly McDonough: Well, that’s a great way to close. Thank you so much and thank you both Paula and Peggy for joining us today.
Paula Couselo-Findikoglu: Thank you. Thank you for having us.
Peggy Cadwell: Thank you, Molly.
Molly McDonough: And thank you, listeners. I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of Talk Justice. If you like what you’ve heard, please take a moment to rate us and subscribe on Spotify and Apple podcasts or wherever podcasts can be found so you won’t miss an episode. Until next time.
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