A major study released today by the New York State Bar Association urged greater support for Family Courts, calling for more judges and resources to handle cases of child support, neglect and abuse, foster care and other family issues.
The findings of the comprehensive two-year study are included in a 198-page report approved by the Association's House of Delegates on January 25.
"The lack of judges to hear the overwhelming number of cases involving the safety and well-being of children results in long delays, piecemeal trials, uneven access to justice and a public perception that the forum is ineffectual and unworthy of community confidence," the report states.
The study found that it can take months and even years to resolve some cases involving children. It pointed to an inadequate number of Family Court judges and staff to handle a burgeoning caseload that has led to overcrowded dockets, confusion and frustration for litigants, delays and multiple adjournments.
"With overcrowded dockets, too few judges, and far too many delays, these courts resemble hospital emergency rooms and our family law attorneys are forced to perform triage," the report states.
Many families appear in Family Court without attorneys and must negotiate a complex court system without adequate help. A survey of 95 litigants about their experiences in Family Court in four counties (Queens, Wayne, Monroe and Saratoga) found that more than three-quarters were not represented by attorneys. Mediation programs that could resolve many matters without courtroom intervention are not being used to the fullest extent possible.
The report's 26 recommendations include authorizing more judges, expanding the use of mediation, along with the expanded use of video technology and e-filing to improve efficiency, and increased funding for longer court hours, training, security and facility upgrades.
"The shortage of judges can no longer be ignored," said State Bar President Seymour W. James, Jr. (The Legal Aid Society in New York City). "We recognize the economic challenges facing the state. We also recognize the irreparable harm to children and families when the Family Court system is crippled by insufficient staff and funding."
Among the report's recommendations:
• Urge the state Legislature to authorize more judges and assign judges from other courts to sit in Family Court in the meantime; add more judicial hearing officers, court attorneys/referees and support magistrates to improve disposition of cases.
• Expand the court day to ensure that more hearings can be completed on the same day. That would help improve the quality of decisions and boost morale of judges and staff.
• Expand and enhance mediation programs, which provide a cost-effective alternative to court appearances in child custody, welfare and support cases.
• Make rules more consistent regarding assignment of counsel to low-income individuals. Also, provide greater assistance and resources (including pro bono services) for litigants without legal representation.
• Improve services for individuals with physical and mental disabilities and for immigrants.
• Adopt consistent procedures regarding court-ordered psychological evaluations in child custody and neglect cases.
• Urge the Legislature to authorize digital filing of pleadings in more types of proceedings. Reduce paperwork through digital filing of documents. Increase statewide use of e-filing to make the system more efficient and user-friendly. Expand use of videoconferencing.
• Expand continuing legal education for judges, quasi-judicial personnel, attorneys and staff.
• Increase collaboration between the courts, the bar and the community.
The 35-member task force was chaired by Susan B. Lindenauer, retired general counsel for The Legal Aid Society in New York City, and Broome County Family Court Judge Rita Connerton.
It held hearings in Albany, Buffalo, Long Island and New York City, during which more than 60 individuals testified, including judges, Family Court personnel, government officials, and advocates for children and families.
"We commend the many judges and court personnel who are dedicated to improving the lives of children," said Lindenauer. "We hope the additional resources we propose can be used to improve conditions for all those who come before our courts and those who serve in the courts."
"Ensuring the welfare of our children is our most important priority. Family Court plays a vital role in their well-being and protection," said Connerton. "By dedicating ourselves to improving the Family Court system, we are rededicating ourselves to improving the lives of families throughout our state."
Family Court's Vital Role
Family Court in New York is charged with responsibility for vulnerable children who are in the midst of domestic crises. Its mission is to protect the well-being and safety of children in matters of child custody, visitation, child support, domestic violence, truancy, child abuse and neglect, parental rights and foster care.
According to the state Office of Court Administration, Family Court caseloads have increased as more families have sought legal resolution and as courts have taken on increased responsibilities. Yet the number of judges and staff to handle the growing workload has not kept pace.
The report notes that while caseloads have been growing rapidly-from 683,000 in 2001 to nearly 750,000 in 2011-no Family Court judges have been added in New York City in the past 20 years; only four have been added upstate in the past decade. This has led to significant delays in resolving cases.
Individual judges currently handle an average of 4,600 case filings a year, a caseload many times greater than judges in other New York courts.
To access a copy of the report online, visit www.nysba.org/substantivereports.
The New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the country, with 76,000 members. It was founded in 1876.
Contact: Mark Mahoney
Associate Director, Media Services and Public Affairs