Over the past several months, I have had the honor of co-chairing a joint New York City Bar Association/Fund for Modern Courts work group, which just issued its report on the impact of COVID-19 on the New York City Family Court. Given its large caseload, the fact that about 80% of the litigants are unrepresented, and a longstanding lack of resources and inadequate investment in technology, the Family Court was hit much harder by the pandemic than other courts.

The report details “a significant shutdown of service […] for a large number of litigants for an extended period of time.” While “essential” cases and “emergency” matters went forward, the vast majority of custody, visitation, child support and adoptions stagnated for months, many for almost a year before being scheduled. Litigants were literally turned away at the door with limited information about their cases or the status of court operations generally. This grave situation impacted real people, something Melissa Russo at WNBC captured through the voice of litigants during an evening news broadcast: NYC Family Court in Crisis, New Report Says – NBC New York.

The real story here is not as much about the pandemic as it is about how the pandemic laid bare inequities that had existed in the Family Court for decades. The lack of resources, including an insufficient number of judges, inadequate staffing, and limited technology, long predated COVID-19. At the root of the problem is New York State’s antiquated court structure — comprised of 11 separate and distinct trial courts – which makes it difficult for court administrators to allocate limited resources where they are most needed. The structure locks in disparities among the various trial courts which, in turn, disproportionately impacts the poor and people of color.

The report urges executive and legislative action to address the underlying inequities in the system.  Indeed, the Fund for Modern Courts is leading a coalition of over 100 organizations to support Chief Judge Janet DiFiore’s proposed constitutional amendment to simplify the court system.

The report also calls for the Family Court to adopt New York State Courts Electronic Filing (NYSCEF); provide regular statistical reporting; enact uniform rules; expand technological capabilities for remote proceedings and for communications with stakeholders; move judges, staff, and other resources from other trial courts as necessary and appropriate to tackle backlogs and delays; and expand management training for jurists.

Recognizing growing awareness of the acute need to advance racial and social justice, the report pushes for a concerted effort among the bench, bar, and state lawmakers to reform the system so that we can better protect the safety and security of families and children. As the report notes, “The emergence, however uneven, of remote technology and a growing recognition that the Family Court is under-resourced and that its in-person service model does not fit today’s world should be a source of hope.”

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Photo of William C. Silverman William C. Silverman

William C. Silverman is a partner responsible for leading Proskauer’s global pro bono efforts, which provide assistance to individual clients and nonprofit organizations in litigation as well as transactional matters. He focuses on identifying and securing pro bono opportunities and partnerships for Proskauer…

William C. Silverman is a partner responsible for leading Proskauer’s global pro bono efforts, which provide assistance to individual clients and nonprofit organizations in litigation as well as transactional matters. He focuses on identifying and securing pro bono opportunities and partnerships for Proskauer lawyers and ensuring widespread participation in these projects.

Bill has robust private and public sector experience and a strong criminal and civil background. He has worked extensively on government investigations and white collar criminal matters, as well as complex civil litigation in federal and state courts. He also served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, where he led criminal investigations, conducted trials and handled Second Circuit appeals.

Throughout his career, Bill has dedicated himself to the promotion of equal access to justice through pro bono service, particularly in the area of family court, anti-trafficking, and immigration.

Bill spearheaded a partnership among several law firms, corporations and the New York City Family Court to provide free legal advice to pro se litigants. The New York City Family Court Volunteer Attorney Program now has more than 400 volunteer attorneys from 40 major firms and corporations. Bill also helped build a coalition of organizations in a successful effort to secure additional Family Court judges in New York. He is now part of an effort spearheaded by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore to simplify the New York Court System from 11 trial courts to three.

Bill serves as counsel to the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition. In that capacity he has been a strong advocate for changes in the law and public policy to protect victims of human trafficking and bring perpetrators to justice. He also represents individual clients in this area, including a successful federal lawsuit brought on behalf of a trafficking victim against her traffickers. For his work, he was named by domestic violence nonprofit Sanctuary For Families as one of “New York’s New Abolitionists.”

Bill has spoken at numerous conferences and events, including New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s Hearings on Civil Legal Services and the American Bar Association’s Equal Justice Conference. In 2014, he attended a meeting at the White House with Vice President Joe Biden and other policymakers on the need for access to legal services in immigration proceedings.

Bill has been recognized for his public service with the Abely Pro Bono Leadership Award from Sanctuary For Families and Columbia Law School (2019); the Special Leadership Award for All-Around Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility & the Law from City & State Reports (2015); the Commitment to Justice Award for Outstanding Partner from inMotion (2008); and the Matthew G. Leonard Award for Outstanding Pro Bono Achievement from MFY Legal Services (2007).

Outside of his work at the firm, Bill serves on various committees and non-profit boards. Bill is currently chairman of the Fund for Modern Courts, a non-partisan citizen organization devoted to improving New York State courts, and is formerly chairman of Legal Information For Families Today (LIFT), an organization devoted to unrepresented litigants in Family Court.