At a Standstill

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BUDGET CUTS HAVE BROUGHT NEW YORK’S courts TO A CRAWL

The New York civil court system is supposed to serve as an integral resource for residents seeking access to justice. But a slew of recent cuts, combined with an influx of cases in some courts, has significantly slowed the wheels of justice in the city, and attorneys, advocates, judges and court staff say that it’s a serious problem.

The root of the problem is that New York state’s courts have been tasked with doing more with less—$170 million less. While that impact has been spread around the state, many courts in New York City have seen dramatic effects.

At the end of last year, the New York City Lawyers’ Association (NYCLA) commissioned a report (see sidebar), conducted by its task force on judicial budget buts, to find out the impact of the 2011-2012 fiscal year cuts. They surveyed 759 people, including private practice attorneys, court system employees, government attorneys and judges. Over 80 percent of respondents reported that they strongly agreed or agreed that the court’s efficiency has been compromised and that the budget cuts have had a negative effect of the administration of justice.

The cuts include offering early retirement packages and putting a freeze on hiring new employees, in addition to layoffs. Interpreters are harder to find, and security has been reduced. The courts have also practically eliminated overtime, and in perhaps the biggest and most consequential change, implemented shorter hours, closing the courts at 4:30 p.m. instead of 5:00 p.m.

“It was a drastic budget cut that had not happened before. The court budget had not been slashed in decades,” said David Bookstaver, communications director for the New York state court system. “We are good partners in government. We realize our budget was cut because of the incredibly difficult fiscal times that the state was going through at the time.”

The cuts come as a direct result of a dire budget situation for the entire state. Although the state court system, as a third and separate branch ofgovernment, doesn’t submit its budget in the same way that state agencies do, it is not immune to the fiscal crisis that has hit every state-funded entity in the past year.

Bookstaver said that the chief administrative judge, A. Gail Prudenti, who supervises the administration and operation of the state’s trial courts, did not take the cuts she imposed lightly.

“We have not had to lay off anyone in the court system in almost two decades, and we had to lay off over 400 employees,” Bookstaver said. “The chief judge felt that the court’s mission was to not close courthouse doors, as other states were forced to do.”

Slashing services and staff across the board was the better alternative to closing courts for a full day every week, Bookstaver said, but acknowledged that that extra half an hour lost every day isn’t just two and a half hours a week. The reduction in overtime allowances means that if a witness in a trial is ready to testify at 4 p.m., a judge might push the testimony to the next day, instead of risking running past 4:30 p.m. In the past, judges would routinely stay until 5:30 or 6 p.m. in order to finish out a motion or hearing, so the real time lost is much more substantial than a scant 30 minutes.

“You will start a hearing and continue it weeks later,” said Stewart Aaron, the president of NYCLA. “There are these long delays in getting resolutions with matters that are important to the litigants, leaving people and issues in complete limbo. Obviously that’s not the way to administer justice.”

Some attorneys say that the cuts disproportionately affect those who should be getting the most help to navigate the system
“We saw an almost immediate impact on the court, because there were both layoffs and earlier closures. The shortened hours definitely are a hardship in civil court,” said Dora Galacatos, senior counsel to the Feerick Center for Social Justice at Fordham Law School and a volunteer with the Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office, which helps low-income New Yorkers being sued for debt collection. Galacatos said that the court heard over 134,000 debt collection cases in 2011 alone, and that the defendants in these cases often have a difficult time getting through the process.

“Many of them are economically distressed and working poor people, so shortened hours mean less flexibility in getting to the court,” Galacatos said. Other services designed to help working people, like free childcare programs, have been cut, forcing parents to drag small children through a day in court. Small claims court used to stay open several nights each week to accommodate people who work during the day, and is now only open on one night.

The cuts have a ripple effect on litigants and the system as a whole. If someone is supposed to be in court at 3:45 p.m., they might take off work and head down to the courthouse with time to spare, only to be met with a longer-than-normal line to get through security and into the doors, due to reduced staff. Earlier closing times with less wiggle room means people are more likely to miss their times altogether, further burdening the court calendar.

In housing court, which is a specialized court that only exists in New York City, the urgent problems people come to address—tenants not receiving crucial services or landlords not receiving rent—are often stretched out and resolved in a matter of months instead of weeks.

“Let’s say you have a landlord/tenant proceeding, a simple, easy case,” said Glenn Spiegel, a real estate and housing attorney and partner with the Newman Ferrara law firm. “The landlord starts a case against a tenant because the tenant didn’t pay their rent. How long is it going to take the landlord to get their apartment back? The landlord isn’t a corporate landlord, it’s an individual, relying on those rents to pay the mortgage debt. How much longer does it take the landlord to evict that tenant that’s not paying?”

In his experience, it’s now taking two or three months for these kinds of cases, Spiegel said—and that’s if everything is perfectly by the book with no mistakes in the paperwork. If something has to be resubmitted, that can double the amount of time, he said.

Spiegel said that these types of delays could also have greater ramifications for all renters in general in the city. Landlords, knowing that if a tenant doesn’t pay up they won’t have a quick recourse to get them out, could become more skittish in choosing renters and raise their required income threshold, locking lower and middle income residents out.
It’s costing everyone more money to drag out cases, whether in legal fees or time spent away from work.

“It’s already expensive enough to be involved in litigation. If you have to sue somebody, you’re talking about a private case,” Spiegel said, adding that he doesn’t like having to explain to his clients why a proceeding that should take a lot less time and cost them less is suddenly going on for much longer.

Family court litigants are suffering as well. Briana Denney practices matrimonial and family law through her firm Newman & Denney, and said that she’s unfortunately grown accustomed to incredibly lengthy cases over the past year.

“Families are really in crisis by the time they go to the court system, and most people have an expectation that it’s going to be dealt with expeditiously,” Denney said. “The cutbacks have really impacted how much time judges have to deal with people. Unless it’s the worst of the worst, like serious abuse, things are getting pushed out for months or even years.”

Denney recalled a custody case where a divorced mother moved out of state with her child, legally, and when the father sought to change the custody arrangement and get the child back, the judge sided with him—three years later.

“It’s a strain financially, and it’s a huge emotional strain,” Denney said. “When the issues are dealing with kids and visitation and custody, everything is in flux and it’s really stressful for [kids] too.”

Some involved with the courts say that the slowdown can’t be attributed to budget cuts alone, however. Louise Seeley is the executive director of Housing Court Answers, an independent group with a contract from the city to set up information tables inside housing court buildings, in order to assist pro se litigants—both tenants and landlords—who appear for housing cases and need help to understand the process and their rights.

“It’s hard to tell how much of it is the cutbacks or the economy, because filings are up,” Seeley said about the backlog in housing court. She said that some days there is standing room only at the clerk’s office. “With the economy, more people are falling behind on their rent. It’s a combination of less people being able to staff windows combined with increased filings.”

Another aspect of the economy that still haunts the courts is the foreclosure crisis. State Sen. Liz Krueger said that she’s heard from many judges how backlogged the civil court system has become across the state because of the avalanche of foreclosure cases that have inundated the courts.

“There still is an enormous problem with cases coming before the courts with whoever is doing the foreclosure does not have the correct paperwork and doesn’t have the facts, and the judge has to put a delay in the case and call them back,” Krueger said. “It’s a continuing saga of an enormous waste of court resources as well as pain to the people who are at risk of losing their homes.”

Krueger said that she’s supported increasing filing fees in certain cases in order to help alleviate some of the courts’ budget constraints, enabling them to hire more clerical staff and get everything running faster, but that none of the state bar associations have supported this kind of measure.

“If the banks created this problem, I think the banks should have an obligation through increased filing costs for going to court, to pay for the increased burden on our courts to ensure that justice is done correctly,” Krueger said of the foreclosure cases.

The Office of Court Administration is gearing up for another budget season and preparing to present next year’s fiscal budget proposal this December. While no one believes that the cuts will be fully restored, there is hope that enough outrage will bring back some of programs and staff.

“The civil court is the people’s court. It used to be the jewel of the judicial branch,” said Spiegel. “There has to be a better solution than limiting access to the courts.”

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