19 May 2020

The court system has made enormous strides in shifting to remote-based hearings

Portrait of Gretchen Beall Schumann

Gretchen Beall Schumann: 'I am finding that the New York family law community is especially engaged in the exchange of ideas'

Family lawyer Gretchen Beall Schumann is impressed by how New York's courts have adapted to the Covid-19 lockdown

As family lawyers, we often play the role of crisis managers, adapting quickly to changing circumstances and formulating creative solutions in difficult times.

While so much of the practice involves personal interaction — with clients, with colleagues, with courts — that changed virtually overnight in late March with the various business restrictions and social distancing measures promulgated in the State of New York.

Our law firm was prepared to immediately shift to remote services, which has filled our days with video conferencing and other new technology.  While it may not be in person, we are continuing to connect 'face-to-face' so that we can provide critical services needed now, indeed more than ever.  

In restricting movement, the pandemic has frequently made relationships more complex to navigate or dissolve.

A couple wishing to separate might be facing new physical or financial limitations. The increased demands of work, caretaking, household tasks or distance learning may present additional stressors.

Separated parents may find themselves having to alter their usual child access plans in the face of sudden safety concerns.  Support systems, such as extended family and childcare, may not be available, making it even more vital for attorneys and the legal system to provide additional support and accessibility for families that might experience high conflict in the best of times.     

Along with other state-wide restrictions, New York Courts were initially closed to all but essential (ie emergency) family law matters, such as family offense/applications for Orders of Protection, child protective and juvenile delinquency proceedings. 

In the past two weeks, the court system has made enormous strides in shifting to remote-based hearings and conferences for some nonessential matters.

Litigants are now able to seek a limited range of relief, which has been pivotal in resolving parenting and access issues, as well as moving pending matrimonial and family cases forward to discovery, settlement or even trial by video conference. 

However, for many litigants wishing to file a new divorce, custody/access or child support matter, this is not yet an option.  

Other measures, such as Executive Order 202.7, have been put in place in New York to allow for the notarization of various legal documents and the taking of acknowledgments remotely by audio-video means, thus paving the way for legal process and virtual settlements.  The same technology can now be utilized to procure a marriage license and solemnize a marriage (Executive Order 202.20).

Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, many of the remote capabilities initiated during this time, including in the courts, will likely continue in some measure, streamlining the practice of family law as we know it.

With respect to cross-border disputes, these innovations will only continue to improve technology that previously existed but may have been used sparingly.

Moreover, I am finding that the New York family law community is especially engaged in the exchange of ideas through blogs, webinars and electronic conferencing as we work through this complicated time, a trend that I hope and anticipate will continue in the years to come.

Gretchen Beall Schumann is a founding partner of New York law firm Cohen Rabin Stine Schumann

This article is part of the Family Law During Lockdown series. Click here for more commentary on how courts around the world are adapting to the impact of the pandemic.

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