Story by: Rob Abruzzese

Aside from the Criminal Court, New York City’s Family Court was the only court to stay open when the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything else down. Now, it is operating through five virtual courtrooms.

“We couldn’t take the risk of having the virus spread, but there was also never an option to close down,” said Hon. Jeanette Ruiz, the administrative judge for the New York City Family Court. “The question was, how do we do it in the new world and be able to maintain services and access to justice for people?”

Judge Ruiz explained that the court was at an advantage as it had always known that it would need to stay open during citywide catastrophes and had been implementing a digital plan over the years. With all files and notes pertaining to cases available digitally, the court managed to stay open while keeping judges, clerks and court officers home.

Even Justice Ruiz herself works from home most days while overseeing the five boroughs. She has her Microsoft Surface Pro, her printer and Skype. All case files are accessible digitally.

“We’ve been digital for a few years now,” Justice Ruiz said. “We invested a lot in technology over the years because it was part of our whole strategic plan. The fact that we have E-signatures as a part of our process, all of our judges are accustomed to using computers, all of their notes are uploaded, we really don’t have paper files anymore.”

When the courts shut down, the Family Court began operating exclusively through its virtual courtrooms. At first, it began hearing emergency matters only, but over the last four weeks has expanded from three virtual courts to five and has started hearing additional cases.

“After the courts were shut down, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to operate at full capacity so it was about defining what an emergency was,” Justice Ruiz said. “There are things that require hearings, liberty interest issues for youth and the parents, and other constitutional issues. So we had to determine what we would hear in these virtual courtrooms and eventually we were able to expand from three to five.”

The five virtual courtrooms have no physical location. They might involve a judge from Queens, a clerk from the Bronx, a lawyer from Brooklyn and a supervisor in Manhattan, for instance. They are currently hearing child protection intake cases involving remand applications, newly filed juvenile delinquency intake cases, family offense petitions requesting temporary orders of protection, and other matters deemed essential or emergency.

Each part is equipped with Skype for Business and has designated phone numbers for telephonic appearances. Interpreters and other services are still available, and the proceeds are all recorded and available to the public in person.

Determining what is an emergency is potentially the hardest thing to do right now as the pandemic has given rise to unforeseen issues and things can change drastically from one day to the next. Justice Ruiz meets every day with a group she calls EWIST, an strategic planning executive workgroup, which is made up of supervising judges and other administrators. They meet daily, and sometimes even twice a day.

On April 13, along with other courts, the court began hearing non-essential and non-emergency pending matters. Attorneys are asked to file petitions by email and are given instructions for submitting documents or connecting to the virtual courtrooms.

Judges are encouraging parties to try to reach agreements without resorting to trials and to resolve matters by stipulation.

The pandemic has exacerbated certain issues, such as domestic violence and temporary orders of custody and visitation, so the court has put resources towards those cases. It is also seeing cases that are directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In one instance, a child and their mother both contracted the coronavirus. After the mother died, lawyers reached out to find the father, who refused to care for the child for fear of getting his other family members sick. Justice Ruiz explained that they had to get a little creative to solve that situation and it was resolved after all parties, including the child’s attorney, agreed to a final order of guardianship for an aunt to care for the child.

While all of these problems arise and are overcome, Justice Ruiz explained that she realizes that the court system may never return to what was considered normal two months ago, so she and her team have kept track of data and information about what works and what doesn’t so that they can be ready the next time something happens.

“I think there will be a new normal,” she said. “In the Family Court we are lucky because we have a good team of people, especially our IT people, and we have a strategic plan with a purpose and direction. Technology has always been a part of our vision.”