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Justice delayed by virus, but NY civil courts slowly opening back up

New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, third

New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, third from right, and state Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks, foreground center, oobserve a virtual arraignment at Criminal Court in Manhattan on March 25. Credit: New York Unified Court System via AP

ALBANY — It’s justice delayed in courtrooms across New York State as tens of thousands of cases and motions have ground to a halt because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The court system shut down about seven weeks ago except for emergency and essential matters, as did most businesses and operations in New York, to slow the spread of the virus.

Criminal cases get more attention, but the delay probably is felt more in civil law where cases move in an array of venues.

Based on annual trends, the slowdown means about 80,000 dispositions in Family Court — the most active legal venue across the state — have been put on hold, actions ranging from child support to foster care placements to adoptions.

Add another 15,000 estate, will and guardianship matters typically handled over such a time period in surrogate courts; 10,000 civil claims in local and district courts; 700 oral arguments in New York’s midlevel appeals court; and even the nine or 10 decisions handed down monthly by New York’s top court.

It’s an abrupt stop for a state that typically leads the nation in civil cases annually.

“Before we went into shutdown, I was juggling five different settlements,” said Rosalia Baiamonte, a Garden City attorney who also is chairwoman of the Bar Association’s family law section. Some can be finalized, but others are “on hold” because one parent’s job status has changed — a story line surely repeated in courtrooms around the state.

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From a near standstill, the court machinery now is cranking up again with a transition to “virtual” proceedings through internet teleconferences. At first, it was just “essential” and emergency matters.

New York’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Judge Lawrence K. Marks, who leads the state Office of Court Administration, have expanded the use of virtual courts. As of mid-April, officials said courts have settled or disposed of about 2,600 cases and issued more than 1,400 decisions on motions, primarily in civil cases.

Since April 13, judges have conducted proceedings in about 25,000 civil and criminal matters, resolving about one-third, Marks said.

On Thursday, Marks announced another loosening of restrictions. In a memo to New York's judges, Marks said judges on Monday may resume the practice of sending some cases to panels established for "alternative dispute resolution" and expanded the use of electronic filing for motions and applications.

“It’s hard to tell families in crisis ‘just be patient,’ ” Baiamonte said. But at least things are moving again.

“To think that, 30 days ago, courts were not set up to do virtual courts. It’s unheard of, to move this quickly. We have to give them credit,” she said.

Matters move in a more protracted fashion — with tales of scheduled one-hour conferences starting 30 minutes late because of technical glitches, or parties disconnecting or accidentally muting the sound.

Family Court cases are particularly complicated, said N. Scott Banks, attorney in chief in Nassau County for Legal Aid Services, which represents people living at or near poverty.

In criminal cases, there’s a prosecutor and a defender. In Family Court, typical “two-party” matters become five or six people on a computer screen because of the need for, say, an interpreter or child protective services agent.

“It takes more lawyers than in normal life,” Banks said.

There also are a lot of instances of a person acting as his own lawyer in Family Court than in other venues, Banks said. Besides legal challenges, that might present challenges with the technology of logging into proceedings and staying connected.

Another element that’s changed: much fewer “family offense” cases, such as orders of protection.

“We were getting 20 family offense cases a week," Banks said. "Now, we’re not getting any."

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