New York City’s overburdened Family Court is finally getting some relief, as Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a bill to add four new judges to the struggling system’s bench.
The impact of crushing caseloads on the Family Court system was exposed in reports earlier this year by the NYC Bar Association, the Fund for Modern Courts and the News 4 I-Team.
The Family Court serves thousands of low income Black and brown litigants, largely unrepresented by lawyers. In many cases, parents face painful, year-long waits for justice in custody disputes, visitation and child support cases.
When Covid-19 hit, the system came to a screeching halt for thousands of vulnerable families with children, revealing “deep inequities” and technical shortcomings that predated the pandemic, according to a report prepared by the NYC Bar Association and The Fund for Modern Courts.
The report, obtained by the News 4 I-Team, concludes that during the pandemic, the vast majority of families “had virtually no access” to the court. Citing historic underfunding, compared with other courts in the state, the report concludes “Family Court was ill-equipped to respond quickly, consistently, fairly and comprehensively” to families’ needs.
It also suggested the structure of the State’s court system locks the Family Court and its mostly poor litigants into a second rate system.
“There were not enough judges,” Bill Silverman, a partner at the law firm Proskauer Rose who co-authored the report, told the I-Team in an interview earlier this year. “Pre-Covid, there were about 56 judges for over 200,000 filings per year. There was a lack of technology. There is no electronic filing in Family Court. So when Covid struck, the Family Court had more difficulty functioning than other courts.”
Several state legislators had previously told the I-Team there was resistance within the legislature to helping the court system, ever since the state’s highest court ruled against lawmakers, tossing out their district maps and forcing re-election campaigns into chaos.
But a bill finally passed in early June, and Hochul signed it just before the deadline late Thursday.
“Expanding the number of family court judges will help to advance proceedings involving children, including adoption, reunification and child support matters,” Governor Hochul said in a statement. “I’m proud to sign this law to ensure families and kids are treated with dignity and respect by our state court system.”
Thousands of the city’s most vulnerable families are facing agonizing delays, with parents seeking child support and children waiting for permanent homes, as the city’s family court system has come screeching to a halt amid the pandemic, creating a severe backlog. NBC New York’s Melissa Russo reports.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Brad Hoylman sponsored the Senate bill adding the judges. He previously said that despite lawmakers’ “consternation” over redistricting, he hoped that politics would remain separate from decisions impacting vulnerable families.