on May 19, 2021
Consider it a, "New and Better Normal."
All New York State court employees, including all judges, will return to their respective buildings on May 24, but as Chief Judge Janet DiFiore pointed out during her recent address to the legal community that doesn't mean a full in-person return to the courts. Instead, Chief Judge DiFiore explained that the court will continue to implement COVID safety measures and will still rely on its virtual court model in many instances.
"I’m pleased to report that our plan for the return of all judges and court staff to their assigned courthouses by May 24th is going smoothly," Chief Judge DiFiore said. "Staffing levels are increasing incrementally with each passing week as our Administrative Judges and court managers work through the different safety, operational and logistical issues in all of our courthouses. Obviously, the physical return of our judges and professional staff will enable us to responsibly expand in-court operations and services, and conduct more jury trials -- 65 of which are scheduled for this coming week -- while giving judges the ability to schedule additional in-person proceedings where doing so would serve important interests of access to justice or court operations."
The courts will continue COVID screening and temperature checks at entrances, face masks, PPE and social distancing will still be required and the strict cleaning and sanitizing standards will remain. Overall, the Chief Judge said that they don't expect, at least in the immediate future, to have a large increase in the number of lawyers, litigants, and court users into the buildings.
"In the majority of cases that come before us, we have the option of continuing to rely on our virtual court model where appropriate,' Chief Judge DiFiore said. "Fifteen months after COVID-19 compelled us to transform court operations overnight, virtual proceedings are no longer an “experiment” but have proven to be an effective method of moving cases closer to resolution while ensuring that litigants and lawyers can have their matters heard in a convenient, timely and cost-effective manner. As we move forward into our 'new and better normal,' there is no doubt that many types of virtual proceedings and services will become permanent features of our court operations, even after the pandemic subsides. As part of our commitment to incorporate the delivery of virtual services where appropriate, we are providing targeted technology training to our judges and court staff on a regular basis, both at the local and statewide levels."
The Office of Court Administration is hosting a "Live Technology Training Series" each Wednesday from 1:00 PM to 2:00 PM during May and June. These sessions are a response to feedback by judges and chambers staff and will focus on using Microsoft Teams for all aspects of virtual proceedings, how to leverage Court Research Reporting and Dashboard resources, working with laptops 101, and editing PDF documents.
"With regard to our virtual courts, I’m pleased to report that well over 1,100 online bench trials and hearings were commenced last week, and that our judges and staff remotely conferenced more than 24,300 matters; settled or disposed of more than 5,800 of those matters; and issued more than 2,200 written decisions on motions and other undecided matters," the Chief Judge said. "Of course, as we follow through on our commitment to virtual court services, we will take great care not to exacerbate existing inequalities in court access for low-income New Yorkers, especially those who face what we know to be a 'Digital Divide,' a lack of access to what many of us take for granted: digital broadband and Wi-Fi availability, adequate data plans and smartphone minutes, and basic computer equipment."
There is currently a pilot program called "Community Court Access" running in Albany-area courts to provide people who lack home computers or reliable internet service with a space in their neighborhoods where they can access virtual court proceedings, e-file documents, and connect with legal services including pro bono attorneys. These sites are equipped with video cameras, scanners, and technology necessary to fully participate in proceedings. Private space is also available for people to prepare court documents and court employees and community liaisons are on site to offer assistance.