How Will Budget Cuts Affect the Family Court?

After New York Governor Andrew Cuomo criticized the judicial branch for not agreeing to a ten percent reduction in spending this March, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman submitted a revised budget which cut $100 million from the $2.7 billion budget he had originally submitted. After the Governor and the Legislature worked out the final details of the State budget, which was announced on March 27th, an additional $70 million had been cut from the state’s judiciary budget.

Although the exact impact of the cuts is not yet known, Judge Lippman has stated that the cuts will require reductions in programs and hundreds of layoffs, including courthouse personnel.  “It will have a tremendous impact on the system,” Judge Lippman said, the cuts will cause “delays in the administration of justice, without question.”

While these cuts will have an effect on the entire State court system, the impact on the State’s Family Courts could be devastating.  A 2010 report released by the New York State Unified Court System entitled Plan for the Future of the New York City Family Court, acknowledged the “ever-expanding caseloads of the Family Court” and the fact that the Family Courts remained “under-resourced.”

In July, 2010 the New York County Lawyers’ Association released a report on the Family Court’s of New York City. The report pleaded for the Office of Court Administration (OCA) to recognize the imbalance between the work load of the Family Court and other courts of statewide jurisdiction and to address the imbalance by purposefully shifting resources to the Family Court. While the current budgetary constraints make it highly unlikely the OCA will increase the resources directed to the Family Courts, OCA should spare the Family Court from any additional reduction in resources.

In March, after making the first $100 million cut to the budget, Judge Lippman said that the entire judicial hearing officer (JHO) program was in jeopardy. The program employs retired judges who hear certain types of proceedings which helps alleviate the judge’s caseloads. NYCLA and other organizations have been urging the legislature to increase the number of Family Court judges in New York City. According to the NYCLA report, “[t]he failure to provide additional judges to adjudicate cases precludes access to justice and diminishes the quality of justice for New York City’s most vulnerable families.” Under the current budget, it is not realistic to think that the legislature will increase the number of Family Court judges but the elimination of the JHO program could have a crippling effect on the Family Courts.

The New York City Family Court presides over a quarter million petitions a year and is the “face of justice for many citizens of our state.” The system is already under-resourced and at a point where the quality of justice available to New York City’s most vulnerable families is diminished. Any additional cuts in resources will have a serious effect on the administration of justice. OCA must protect the Family Courts from any additional reductions.