Chief Judge Janet DiFiore’s call during her recent state of the judiciary address to “modernize” New York’s court system by reforming its complicated structure, has energized a growing grassroots effort across the state. Since her speech at the end of February, dozens of groups and organizations, including representatives from a wide variety of New York State business associations, good government groups, advocates against domestic violence, legal service providers and bar associations, have come together to form a coalition for court simplification. Legislators are also now focusing on the issue. State Senator Brad Hoylman, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, recently told The New York Law Journal, “I’m actually digging into the issue and figuring out a way to hold hearings and move these proposals forward.”
The current court structure — made up of 11 separate trial courts with varying jurisdictions — is complex and costly, and adversely affects all litigants, both private citizens and businesses. It especially impacts the poor and unrepresented, who are expected to navigate the limited jurisdiction of these different courts with their different procedures and rules, in order to pursue claims (or defend against them) simultaneously in more than one forum. For example, matrimonial matters may not be heard in Family Court but only in Supreme Court, thereby leaving families with no choice but to litigate related issues in both courts simultaneously. Should there be any criminal or housing issues involved as well, those would have to be resolved in two other courts. Similarly, claims seeking damages against the state can only be heard in the Court of Claims, which has no jurisdiction over any city, county, or town government, or over any individual defendant.