Budget cuts bleeding the judicial system

The clients I work with want to stay out of court. They are often angry, but they believe that by working together and understanding their conflict, they can reach better agreements than they could by litigating. And so they choose mediation or collaborative divorce.

And those who are aware of the $170 million in cuts to the New York State Unified Court System budget are even happier to avoid litigation at this time.

Before the 2011 fiscal year, courthouses could already be difficult to navigate. But now, with fewer personnel, fuller court dockets, and shorter operating hours, the court experience has become even more grueling.

Prior to the cuts, courts were ill-equipped to handle divorce and certain family-related disputes. Disagree? Then consider all those who get divorced through the courts and are still enmeshed in conflict years later — a result of the conflict not really being settled.

Maybe I should be glad. After all, the results of the cuts might be good for my out-of-court business.

But, I’m not happy about it, maybe because my own divorce was litigated, and I know that while I may get more cases, plenty of people are still choosing the courts, and many will have experiences worse than mine.

Under the best of circumstances, litigating means battling, relinquishing control to a judge, and giving up privacy.

Now, diminished manpower means that paperwork takes longer, as does the scheduling of cases. In my own divorce, at a time when the courts had more money, we were in litigation for more than two years before ultimately settling; that was without a trial, and a single court appointed expert having minimal involvement.

Added delays to an already cumbersome court process mean more stress to litigants and their families, more distractions at work, more missed days, and of course, greater financial burden.

During the Jan. 25 Presidential Summit of the New York State Bar Association, former Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye said, “Let’s face it. We’re in a crisis, and we have to do something about it.”

Former New York City Criminal Court Judge Margaret Finery, chair of the State Bar report on the effects of reduced funding, said that, among other consequences, we are witnessing a greater burden on litigants, especially in family matters.

Part of the solution lies in reforming the court system itself: Abraham Lackman, a public policy consultant, said that the system is notoriously inefficient, and that the New York State Judiciary could realize more than $100 million in savings annually through court consolidation.

A divorce case can serve as an example. In New York, if there is a question of domestic violence, someone can be in supreme court, family court, AND criminal court — all at the same time — for a divorce. That can mean appearing before three judges in different locations on different days for related matters. That can mean inconsistent rulings by the judges, and plenty of missed days of work.

And again, more money.

But consolidating the system is no easy fix; it’s been discussed for decades. For the foreseeable future, we can expect more of the same.

In the meantime, Sandra (name changed) is just trying to endure the divorce process.

“It’s a real struggle,” she says. “I guess I’m luckier than most. As a school teacher, I have lots of time off. But, it’s not as easy to take off from work during the school year as a lot of people think. My principal isn’t happy with me. The really frustrating thing is that I keep going to court, and nothing seems to happen. It’s been three years, and no end in sight. I try to be strong for my kids, but sometimes I’m just a wreck.”

Sandra isn’t alone.

New York City and Long Island based divorce mediator and collaborative divorce lawyer Lee Chabin, Esq. helps clients end their relationships respectfully and without going to court. Contact him at lee_chabin@lc-mediate.com, (718) 229–6149, or go to lc-mediate.com/home.

Disclaimer: All material in this column is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Discussing your particular case and circumstances with a legal professional before making important decisions is strongly encouraged to safeguard your rights.

Source: State Bar News March/April 2012, Volume 54, No. 2; Presidential Summit: Court funding problem is extensive, solutions elusive; and Optimistic Chief Judge Lippman sees many challenges ahead, Mark Mahoney.