Past cuts in the funding of New York's state courts are having a negative impact on families, children, civil litigants, criminal defendants, judges, attorneys and court employees, concludes a report issued today by the New York State Bar Association.
• Family Court cases not completed during reduced court hours may be adjourned days or weeks, disrupting children and families of divorce during their time of crisis and resulting in extra delays and expenses.
• Criminal defendants may spend extra time in jail because they can't get a timely arraignment hearing. Mandatory midday closures of the court make it harder for their attorneys to schedule settlement conferences.
• Litigants and attorneys have expressed concern that, in some cases, jurors are cutting short deliberations and rendering "unjust" verdicts.
• An attorney representing a client on a motion in state Supreme Court is told not to return for at least 60 days because court clerks can't find more timely openings on an overcrowded court docket.
• People wait in long lines to get through metal detectors at some New York City courthouses at the start of the day and again after lunch, as overcrowded court dockets and reductions in court security slow the process to the point where it creates disruptions and delays in cases.
These are just a few examples of what has been happening in courthouses across the state as a result of state cutbacks in judicial funding. The comprehensive State Bar report documents how budget cuts endanger the effectiveness and efficiency of the courts and their ability to keep up with the growing caseloads.
Court financing has not kept up with the growing demands on our judiciary.
The dispensation of justice -- like the construction of a courthouse -- is hardly free," the report states. "There are substantial costs to operating the judicial system -- from running courtrooms to preserving precedents. These costs are borne by the public, which wants in return a sense of confidence in our court system. However, adequate funding is necessary to ensure that 'essential' sense of confidence."
New York's court system has experienced a 12 percent increase in the total caseload statewide during the past decade. Yet despite that increase, the state judicial budget was reduced by $170 million during the 2011-12 fiscal year after several years of flat spending. The proposed 2012-13 budget remains at essentially the same reduced level.
"The need to provide justice to all, particularly to the disadvantaged -- though greater than ever in this economic downturn -- is not being met," the report states. "In all of these ways, recent reductions in state court funding have been very costly."
"Court spending reductions affect real people. They affect children, who are already burdened with family strife and violence. They affect poor people and minorities. They affect businesses seeking to expeditiously resolve disputes. They affect citizens seeking nothing more from the court system than a fair and timely resolution to their legal problems," said State Bar President Vince E. Doyle III of Buffalo (Connors & Vilardo).
The "Report of the Executive Committee on the Impact of the Recent Budget Cuts in New York State Court Funding" draws from interviews and surveys of administrative and trial judges, local bar associations, practicing attorneys and State Bar members from all 13 judicial districts. Participants were asked detailed questions about the impact of funding cuts on the courts in their respective jurisdictions.
"Recent reductions in state court funding have been quite costly," the report observes. "Although state fiscal restraints are very real in this economy, additional and imminent investment in the state court system is necessary. It is necessary to restore a sense of confidence in the judicial system, which ultimately is priceless."
The report identifies a number of measures, some of which already have been implemented in some jurisdictions, to help improve the operation of the courts. Among the innovations born from austerity are cross-training of court employees, development of online research tools and forms, and increased use of e-filing and teleconferencing.
These actions are helpful, the report concludes, but they will not by themselves solve the system's overriding problems. To improve efficiency, reduce delays and case backlogs, and ensure the overall fair administration of justice, the courts need more money, more personnel and more resources.
A summary of the report's key findings is attached, below. To read the report in its entirety, see www.nysba.org/CourtFundingReport.
The New York State Bar Association, founded in 1876, is the largest voluntary bar association in the country, with more than 77,000 members.
KEY FINDINGS OF STATE BAR ASSOCIATION'S COURT FUNDING REPORT
The New York State Bar Association's "Report of the Executive Committee on the Impact of Recent Budget Cuts in New York State Court Funding," issued January 18, 2012, contains the following key points:
Limited courthouse access due to reduced hours delays the resolution of cases and increases negative effects on litigants.
• New budget-imposed courthouse hours -- often strictly limited to 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with a mandatory hour for lunch in which no business may take place -- have made it very difficult to process all the cases that come before the courts.
• "Limiting courthouse access as a cost-saving measure has had some unintended consequences. … Less judicial business and other courthouse business can be conducted each day -- as much as one month less per year. This has led to delays in the administration of justice, increased costs to litigants and the crowding of court dockets,"
states the report.
• Many emergency cases -- including child custody and domestic violence cases --cannot be heard the same day because of the backlog of cases and a reduction in courthouse hours. That has meant that parents and other litigants often have had their cases adjourned prematurely, forcing them to obtain additional child care, take time off from work, and incur the time and expense of multiple trips to the courthouse.
• "Family issues do not lend themselves to waiting, and the frustration and anger that develop can be insurmountable by the time the first appearance arrives," the report states.
• Civil and criminal litigants often have found themselves "in limbo" for days, weeks or months due to reduced courthouse hours and days of operation. They may incur additional expenses of legal fees, and need to have expert witnesses testify over multiple days.
• "The impact on personal injury litigants can be substantial as some can be reduced to poverty awaiting adjudications relating to lost wages and damages," the report states.
• "Business people in particular believe that judges are insensitive to the prompt timing and efficiency which is part of the daily business world."
• In Ulster County, before the budget cuts, it had taken five months to obtain a court date in a civil trial. Now, even with justices from a nearby county pitching in, it takes a full year or more to get on the calendar.
Jury selection and deliberation has been compromised.
• The reduced courthouse hours have made it more difficult to seat prospective jurors and have increased pressure on jurors to complete their deliberations in a shorter period of time so as not to have to take extra time away from work and family obligations.
• "Justice is not being served," wrote one observer.
• The elimination of judicial hearing officers has placed a greater burden on judges to expend valuable court time tending to matters previously handled by JHOs, including jury selection. In at least one judicial district, lawyers say they are concerned that judges are not fully considering challenges for cause because there may not be enough jurors available if even one is dismissed.
• "The lack of funding has created smaller jury pools, the elimination of free lunches for jurors, and a general disregard for resulting effects on prospective and chosen jurors," the report states. "Jury duty simply has become more onerous, and this can only have a negative impact on the entire process."
Delays are leading to longer incarcerations in criminal cases.
• Because of reduced hours, cases are taking longer to get to trial and trials are taking longer to complete, resulting in longer jail times for defendants awaiting trial. Judges have less time to devote to settlement conferences and bail applications that could result in the more expedient disposition of cases. In some areas, defendants are spending more time in jail between court dates and between their arrest and arraignment. This has resulted in an increase in the stress level and costs for defendants and their families.
Reduction in court staffs due to layoffs, early retirements and attrition is affecting the quality and efficiency of court operations.
• In many areas, more cases are being handled by smaller staffs with less experience than their predecessors. This has resulted in delays in filing and processing of petitions, motions and other court documents. This, in turn, has contributed to additional delays and adjournments in court proceedings, as well as raised concerns about court security.
The reduction in staff has resulted in less assistance being made available to individuals who represent themselves in domestic and civil cases.
• Such pro se litigants are receiving less help filing documents and have less access to law library resources, resulting in additional court delays to complete paperwork that's been prepared incorrectly or incompletely.
• "Some attorneys believe that the poor and disenfranchised -- typically minorities -- have been impacted the most. People who do not have funds to retain private attorneys are having difficulties finding legal assistance."
Contact: Mark Mahoney
Associate Director, Media Services & Public Affairs