Although Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on April 16 that New York State’s PAUSE would be extended until May 15, the state’s court system isn’t currently on pause. Neither are the lives of the people who depend on the court. Quarantine may mean for some an opportunity to take a much-needed breather from work or spend more time with their families; but for others, it means self-isolating with a potentially abusive partner, family member or even someone whom they have a pending case against. As if this weren’t complicated enough, since April 6, all courts in Albany and the Capital Region have switched to remote proceedings.
That got us thinking: How do you defend your case or take someone to court online? Are judges using Zoom just like we are for staff meetings? So, we went right to the source. Meet Jaya Connors, director of Albany Law School’s Family Violence Litigation Clinic and a visiting assistant professor of law there. Here’s what it’s like being a domestic violence lawyer during the COVID-19 outbreak.
What was it like in court before remote sessions were mandated?
Thanks to our Chief Judge, Janet DiFiore of the Court of Appeals, the courts moved quickly to respond to the COVID crisis. Before implementation of the remote proceedings, most of our proceedings were adjourned so people didn’t have to appear physically in court unless it was an emergency situation.
So, you haven’t had to practice in court during the pandemic?
How about the remote cases? How exactly will that work?
I can only answer with regard to Albany County and only with regard to domestic violence/intimate partner violence matters. If a person wants to file a family offense petition with the court, they can do so in person by completing and dropping off the petition at the Albany County Judicial Center. Once filed, the court will contact the individual about when to “appear” before the court. All litigants will be given the necessary information about how and when to appear before the judge, either via Skype or Skype for Business, which can be downloaded for free.
Have you participated in any remote cases yet? How’s it felt?
I’ve done one. First of all, I have to say that it depends on how strong your wireless connection is. In the case we had, there were quite a few technical glitches; one attorney was not able to appear at all because of technical issues; there was constant freezing of the connection, and sometimes it was difficult to hear people speak because of the audio feedback, which caused an echoing sound. I was so relieved this was a court conference and not a hearing.
It sounds like it was quite challenging.
Part of effective advocacy is being able to assess body language and demeanor of those around you, especially the judge. Remote access makes this difficult because the access is just that—remote, and you feel it. Most importantly, effective advocacy is about clarity and the timing of your words; and when this is taken away from you because of the screen freezing or Skype for Business not working properly, it affects your train of thought—it affects the strength of your response, and it could affect the outcome of the case. I’m not a fan of remote court proceedings, but it’s the next best [equivalence we have to] appearing in person, and it is most definitely better than having no access at all to the court.
What about people who don’t have access to a computer or smartphone?
Then they can appear via telephone. As to how this will happen, ideally, the individual and/or their attorney will Skype with the judge in order to request and, if the information is sufficient, receive a temporary order of protection. Temporary orders of protection, if issued, will now last for 90 days.
How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted the people you represent?
People are losing jobs. There’s no longer any school or daycare for young children; victims may not feel safe leaving their homes to stay in a shelter where they are unsure if their health or safety or the health or safety of their children may be compromised. I can only say it keeps me up at night.
What should people do if they need help?
Right now, for domestic violence matters, court filings can be done in two ways: via email or by filing in person. I would urge all those seeking an order of protection to contact their local domestic violence program in order to see how these matters are being handled in their specific county. In Albany, the domestic violence program is called Equinox. Also, the students in my clinic put a Q&A together for people seeking assistance from domestic violence during these times.
From your perspective, has there been an uptick in cases of family violence because of COVID-19 and the stay-at-home order?
I don’t know. I do know that family courts are hearing cases involving domestic violence and protective orders are being issued. I can only imagine that a difficult domestic violence situation has been made much, much worse by all the stressors caused by this pandemic.
Interested in what you’re reading? Read more of Saratoga Living’s “What It’s Like” series below.