Coronavirus Forces N.Y. City Criminal and Family Courts to Go ‘Virtual’

By Christian Nolan

virtual courts

The New York State Unified Court System has implemented temporary “virtual court” operations in the New York City Criminal and Family Courts to reduce courtroom density and stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The change began Wednesday, March 25 in the criminal court and will start Thursday, March 26 in the family court. Currently, courts are only handling essential proceedings.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore emphasized that this is a temporary, emergency measure designed to keep the number of people at the courts down to a minimum.

“The high volume of essential and emergency matters handled in these two very busy courts in the last several days was bringing an unacceptably large number of lawyers and agency personnel into our courthouses and requiring too many of our judges and staff to be personally present,” said DiFiore. “This was not consistent with the guidance being issued by public health authorities to engage in social distancing and avoid gatherings of people in order to reduce the spread.”

No judges, attorneys, litigants or other personnel will be present in the courthouses. There will only be appropriate security present, as well as a very small number of clerical staff to process important paperwork.

In the New York City Criminal Court, all parties will participate in court proceedings by videoconferencing using Skype for Business. All arraignments will be virtual, with the judge, prosecution, defense attorney and defendant all participating from remote locations.

Defendants who have not tested positive for COVID-19 or are not in a high-risk group will be brought to the central booking. Defendants who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are in a high-risk group will participate in video arraignments at either Midtown Community Court or Red Hook Community Justice Center.

New York City Family Court will hear by videoconference or by telephone the following matters:
• Child-protective intake cases involving removal applications.
• Newly filed juvenile delinquency intake cases involving remand applications.
• Emergency family offense petitions.
• Writ applications where there is a court order of custody or parenting time.

DiFiore said the court system’s goal is to begin expanding the virtual court model to other courts around the state that are experiencing a high volume of essential matters.

Further, the courts are establishing emergency phone numbers and procedures so that victims of family violence can speak with judges and court personnel in order to obtain temporary orders of protection when appropriate.

The court system is also working with the city’s district attorneys and the corporation counsel to reduce the population density in the jails and juvenile detention facilities by identifying those pretrial detainees and youth who can be safely and appropriately released.

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