Proskauer was privileged to host a panel presentation with Her Justice this month to raise awareness of economic and legal obstacles facing women who are living in poverty in New York City during the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel was moderated by Proskauer associate Elizabeth Siegel, a member of the Her Justice Junior Advisory Board, and featured Her Justice attorneys Hamra Ahmad, Anna Maria Diamanti, and Prathiba Desai. With support from pro bono lawyers at Proskauer and other law firms, Her Justice provides family law and immigration representation to women of limited means, most of whom are mothers and survivors of intimate partner violence.

Among other obstacles, the panelists highlighted the many hurdles the public health crisis has caused for low-income women seeking legal relief in family court. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, accessing family court was challenging for Her Justice’s clients because the court required them to appear in person. Clients often had to wait several hours even for a brief appearance, which was particularly difficult and financially burdensome for those who needed to arrange for child care or time off from work. At the beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020, the New York City Family Court closed except for “essential services” such as emergency proceedings for orders of protection, which are being heard virtually. While the ability to obtain orders of protection during the pandemic is critical for vulnerable women, participating in virtual hearings has created yet another set of challenges for women living in poverty who may not be able to access the technology needed for remote hearings. The lack of access to a stable internet connection and a confidential location to safely discuss sensitive legal issues has proven to be especially difficult.

More than a year since the onset of the pandemic, the New York City Family Court has only recently begun setting court dates for child support cases, and for new child custody and visitation cases that are not considered to be “emergency” situations. Cases appear to be proceeding slowly on an ad hoc basis depending on a variety of factors, including the limited availability of virtual courtrooms.

The inability to obtain a new child support order has been damaging for women in poverty who are struggling to financially support their children, particularly as the rate of intimate partner violence has increased during the pandemic. Child support orders are crucial in enabling a survivor of intimate partner violence to leave an abusive relationship. Quarantining at home has created risk for clients who live with hostile partners, both in terms of the abuse they are suffering as well as the inability to privately and confidentially access legal and therapeutic services in the presence of an abuser.

The lack of easy access to family court on new custody and visitation cases has also harmed women living in poverty. Many clients are dealing with an abusive ex-partner regarding decisions related to the care of their children without the benefit of court intervention. Clients are forced to cooperate with existing visitation orders that no longer suit their needs or to make informal visitation arrangements. What qualifies as an emergency is left to the subjective discretion of the court and may create high-risk situations that are not being addressed. Clients who need to leave New York due to pandemic-related job losses or the need to care for ill relatives are left to choose between leaving their child behind or violating a child custody order that prevents them from taking the child out of state.

Looking forward, it is important to ensure that the New York City Family Court will have the resources needed to process the flood of cases that could not be filed while the courts were closed. It is also important, in the interim, to increase and streamline communications from the court about the ever-changing processes and protocols for filings and hearings as the pandemic progresses. A reliable source of official and reliable information should be designated, and announcements should be easy to read and provided in several languages for non-English speaking clients. As this is a stressful and frustrating time for those waiting for their cases to be heard, it is crucial for pro bono lawyers to stay aware of the most up-to-date information to best serve their clients.

Court may have slowed down but Her Justice has not – they continue to aid as many clients as possible, and pro bono legal service is greatly needed. Through Her Justice, Proskauer lawyers have supported low-income women and their children through direct representation and policy advocacy, and will continue to combat the gender, racial, and economic inequities that have only been heightened by the pandemic.