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Courts in the Day of Covid- What it means for Litigants

Family & Matrimonial Law

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The Covid-19 pandemic has reshaped just about every aspect of our daily lives, so it is no surprise that Court operations have changed as well.

Slowly the Courts have reopened, although not entirely to date, and each county is handling appearances a little bit differently. So, whether you have a pending Court case or are facing the possibility of one, the Court system is not business as usual. But do not be discouraged, there are benefits to litigants that may not have anticipated.

Unless there is a matter scheduled for trial or a hearing, most Supreme Court matters (such as actions for divorce) are being conferenced via Skype. The Courts typically take the lead in setting these virtual appearances up with Skype for Business. Depending on the nature of the Court appearance, the parties may not even have to be present – the Court will conference with counsel only. Where parties are required to be present, the Court will coordinate virtual appearances either by Skype; telephone; or by the client appearing with their attorney at the attorney’s office.

Family Court proceedings however, have been requiring more in person appearances and client participation, also often allowing them to appear via Skype; by telephone; or with counsel at the attorney’s office. The key for litigants is to confirm with their attorney if, and how, they are to be present at any of these Court dates.

As stated, there are some unanticipated benefits for litigants – specifically, cost savings. For example, anyone who has been to Family Court knows that a 10am appearance rarely gets called before the judge on time, and that parking for most Courts in the Capital Region is almost non-existent. Add to that, the cost of paying counsel to travel to and from Court, and one appearance can mount up both expense and frustration. Now, with virtual appearances, many of these problems disappear. The attorney merely logs into a virtual Court appearance and awaits the Court’s availability.

Conversely, this means that communication with your attorney is even more essential. If a court appearance is scheduled, confirm whether you need to be available or not. If so, how will that be coordinated? Do you have the technology needed to be present and if not, what are your alternatives? Similarly, if you are not required to be present (virtually or otherwise), make sure you know what will take place at the conference; what your attorney’s goals are; and be sure to get debriefed afterward. Not being present during a Court appearance with your counsel results in loss of real time communication when often crucial matters are being discussed.

Finally, where trials are required, either in Family or Supreme Court, efforts are being made to schedule them for in Court physical appearance of all parties and counsel. While virtual trials have been common in administrative type proceedings for some time, New York trial courts have previously not had to resort to that process. The complications of examining and cross-examining parties and witnesses; working with exhibits; and arguing objections are numerous. Many of these problems are being addressed, but one can imagine the handicap of not being face to face to argue and present cases as sensitive and nuanced as the issues involved are in divorce and custody litigation.

Many of the changes that are occurring with the Courts are likely to hold over even after Covid-19 is no longer a significant threat. Innovations that have taken place to address the public health are likely to continue as the Courts find more efficient ways to conduct business. Having counsel that understands these changes and the pros and cons of how to work with clients and the Courts, is essential.

Barbara J. King, Esq. is a partner with Tully Rinckey PLLC’s Albany, NY office, and heads firm’s Family & Matrimonial Law practice.  She is experienced in representing New Yorkers in proceedings relating to divorce, separation, equitable distribution, annulment, child support, child custody, spousal maintenance and adoption.  Barbara can be reached at (518) 640-1229 or .

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