TASK FORCE ON JUDICIAL BUDGET CUTS
Co-Chairs: Hon. Stephen G. Crane and Michael Miller
This report was approved by the Board of the New York County Lawyers’ Association on December 12, 2011.
Report on Electronic Survey
Conducted November 9 – November 30, 2011
As a part of its continuing investigation into the impact of judicial budget cuts on the administration of justice, from November 9 to November 30, 2011, NYCLA’s Task Force on Judicial Budget Cuts conducted an electronic survey of attorneys, judges, court staff, members of public policy organizations and the public. This report summarizes and analyzes the survey results.
The survey contained a total of ten questions, including six multiple-choice questions to which the responses were either “strongly agree,” “agree,” “agree somewhat,” “disagree somewhat,” “disagree” and “no opinion.” These questions focused on the general impact of the budget cuts and whether and how they adversely affected the administration of justice, timeliness of its dispensation, costs and efficiencies, staffing, morale and access to justice. The remaining questions comprised one that sought comments and observations, two that were demographics questions and one optional identification question. The attached charts display the results highlighted below.
- Of the 759 people who responded to the Task Force’s survey, 39.3% were attorneys in private practice, 31.2% were court system employees, 9% were government attorneys, 8.3% were attorneys with public interest or legal services organizations, 7.7% were non- attorneys and 4.6% were judges;
- 84.6% strongly agree (64.3%) or agree (20.3%) that the court’s efficiency has been compromised;
- 82.1% strongly agree (59.3%) or agree (22.8%) that the budget cuts have had a negative impact on the administration of justice;
- 77.6% strongly agree (57.5%) or agree (20.1%) that court staff morale has declined;
- 75.7% strongly agree (51.8%) or agree (23.9%) that processing documents takes longer;
- 74.2% strongly agree (50.3%) or agree (23.9%) that the ability of court staff to perform their jobs has declined;
- 69.8% strongly agree (45.0%) or agree (24.8%) that motions take longer from beginning to entry of an order;
- 68.7% strongly agree (46.0%) or agree (22.7%) that the public’s access to justice has declined;
- 68.5% strongly agree (46.9%) or agree (21.6%) that trials take longer; and
- 55.4% strongly agree (31.3%) or agree (24.1%) that litigation costs for the public have increased.
Remarkably, of the 759 respondents, 252 (33.2%) took the time to write comments concerning their own experiences and observations. This is an unusually high figure for this type of questionnaire and reflects the strong feelings about the budget cuts’ impact. Almost all of the comments expressed deep concern and frustration about access to justice and due process.
A representative sample of the comments are as follows:
- [Feel] less safe in courtroom due to shortage of court officers.
- Because of early closing, trials and hearings take extra days, instead of 1 day, 2 days, etc.
- As a court employee, how is it possible to achieve the same level of efficiency and service to the public from before the budget cuts when hours are cut and retirees are not being replaced? There isn’t enough time in the day to do what is required. You never do more with less; you can only do less with less.
- Many people have been laid off. Overtime has been erased. The work is not getting done on time. The court is strained….
- Bins full of papers waiting to be filed are backing up in most courts. Papers that used to be filed in a matter of days now wait for a month or more.
- …the wait for answers to petitions in Housing Court has greatly increased. The workers are overworked and their morale is very low.
- Wait 1 hour to get into the building then wait another 30 minutes to get to the window to be told that the person who handles writs is gone and no one else does it. Horrible.
- I filed a small claims case in October and was given a date in April to come back; 6 months to wait for a court date is ridiculous. Makes me wonder how my tax dollars are being wasted.
- The lines into courthouses take longer. The processing time for court paperwork is taking longer. Trials are being delayed and every stage of the judicial process is taking a lot longer. Shortages of work staff delay every part of the system.
- Because everyone is all too cognizant of what time it is and how much is left before the dreaded hour of 4:30 p.m., paperwork gets done sloppily, mistakes are made, calendars are “churned” and quite frankly, the whole process is subverted. Work is left to be done perhaps the next day or following, causing backups in the whole system.
- Waits of up to six months to get decisions on motions and after fact-finding hearings where decision was reserved by the Court. Entire days spent waiting on benches in the halls outside Landlord-Tenant Part X with anxious clients only to find out that no judge is available to try the case. Routine adjournments of cases on the Civil TAP calendar to the “next available” date result in scheduled dates six to nine months in the future. Trying to negotiate with pro se litigants at the same time they are trying to deal with multiple crying children.
- Due to the strict 4:30 p.m. recess, two recent jury trials required at least two additional trial days to submit the case to the jury (including the inability to complete the testimony of an expert physician until the following week).
- Confidential court files are left unsecured in courtrooms rather than locked in file rooms due to lack of staffing and work time.
- The public, especially jurors, are being greatly inconvenienced with long lines to enter the courthouses because of lack of adequate staffing. Shorter operating hours mean we cannot serve the needs of the public with expedience.
- Personnel are overloaded with work. Backlogs are at crisis levels, because my court, never at full staffing levels to begin with, constantly operates short-staffed….Shuffling of personnel to provide adequate coverage for the heavily used aspects of my court worsens morale, causes further backlogs, and impacts the public, for whom we have little time. Service is given short shrift due to the everyday demands of the job.
- It now takes 2 days for a disposition to be entered into the system. People are delayed returning to work after their case is dismissed. People have been held on warrants that are no longer active.
- I’m a court employee. The backlog in my office is approximately 5-6 MONTHS. Prior to the cuts the backlog was 2-3 DAYS.
- The Feerick Center for Social Justice, together with county bar associations and law school partners, helps to operate the CLARO program in New York, Bronx and Richmond counties. CLARO is a limited legal advice clinic for pro se defendants in consumer debt cases. Due to budget cuts there are substantial delays in retrieving archived court files and in getting newly filed documents into the court file. Both of these delays disadvantage pro se litigants who, for example, may be having their wages garnished or have had their bank accounts frozen. The ability to file convincing orders to show cause, for instance, is seriously hampered without ready access to files or recently filed documents such as affidavits of service. In addition, shorter hours and earlier closing of court offices increase the hardship on working people and families.
- I find that it is outrageous that Small Claims Court is only open one night a week. Doesn’t anybody care about the people? Doesn’t everyone have a right to be heard? Who can wait months to settle a small case? It is very frustrating, especially to people who don’t even know the Small Claims Court is only open once a week. They spend their hard-earned money to travel there and it is closed! Again outrageous!!!
- Too few court officers in Criminal Term has caused delays in bringing prisoners to and from the courtroom and the jurors are forced to spend extra time, even extra days, in court because of the additional time to move and guard the defendants.
- As a judge in the NYC Criminal Court, the budget cuts have had a massive impact on our ability to provide trials to those accused who wish to fight the charges against them…we have been hamstrung by the budget cuts in our attempt to provide a speedy trial to those who want one. First, the Judicial Hearing Officers have been eliminated from the Criminal Court for everything but the Summons Part. While they are able to accept a hearing or two in addition to their heavy summons calendars, they cannot process the volume that they used to handle, which was usually between 5-7 hearings a day. This now has to be absorbed by judges in calendar parts in the Criminal Court. If it were an option to keep up with added litigation demands by doing the hearings at the end of the day until they were completed, that would not be awful. However, due to the new overtime restrictions that are a direct result of the judiciary budget cuts, that is not possible. Court must end at 4:00 (4:30 if there is only one hearing or bench trial still going on). That makes it nearly impossible to keep up with the onslaught of additional hearings (or bench trials, for that matter). The end result is that people have to wait longer than ever to exercise their right to have a trial in their case. And these are misdemeanor cases. If we could simply extend the day to absorb the litigation demands (which was possible before the cuts went into effect), we might have a chance of providing speedy trial access to those who wished to have it. It is simply not possible to provide that to the public with the current budgetary constraints, and there are not yet any additional proposals to deal with this ongoing problem.
- The turn-around time in the Surrogate’s Court is substantially slowed. Clients who are petitioning for Letters Testamentary can’t act until the court reviews the petition and then acts on it. Many days pass even after an order has been signed before it is processed and can be acted upon. It is difficult to reach court personnel by phone, and they have no time to respond to questions. Worse than the cost in time is the anger it provokes in clients who don’t understand the cause for the delay.
- I am a Family Court Judge in Kings County. My social worker was laid off. We frequently have to defer emergency applications because we are required to be done by 4:30 sharp. This has the potential to endanger the safety of children. Also, trials of cases with children in foster care take longer to complete, which delays permanency for them.
- My office has had simple motions adjourned until MARCH 2012.
- Court mediation programs have been devastated at a time when the public needs more access to lower-cost settlement options, not less, and the courts need more ways to cut back on the judge’s dockets, not less.
- In the Family Courts, first-time petitioners are repeatedly turned away after waiting hours, due to the inability of the staff to handle the overwhelming numbers of people needing assistance. On a daily basis, there are staff shortages due to the previous roll back/reassignment initiatives and from the budget cuts.
- My client filed a Writ of Habeas Corpus (to require the father of her children to return her children) in Brooklyn Family Court at 12:15 p.m. and did not see a judge until the next afternoon. She was told that they could not process her paperwork and get her to see a judge on the same day because of the adherence to strict time limits in court.
- In New York County, judgments can take up to 3 months to be entered in e-filed cases, putting the winning party at a severe disadvantage.
- The Judges in Civil Court in NYC are being overwhelmed by work…they are getting all of the “routine” items formerly handled by JHOs, and as a result have less time to keep up with their own work.
- In addition to not replacing more than one-third of the court employees who retired in 2010, there were two rounds of layoffs in the court system. This has over-burdened the court employees to make an understatement where no overtime is offered to make up for the much lower staffing levels. In addition, several courts have a new computer system where the number of entries needed has made processing time for each filing substantially longer.
- I have had clients who are seeking uncontested divorces have to wait over 6 months to have their divorces signed.
- Jury trials take longer because they don’t call in enough jurors, therefore voir dire carries over to additional days because under the new “budget edict” only a certain number of jurors are called in daily.
- It is now far more difficult to obtain foreign language interpreters, particularly Spanish interpreters, expeditiously.
- The Landlord/Tenant parts in Manhattan Civil are a nightmare. We’ve been waiting 6 months to get a judge to hear our eviction trial. It was just kicked to January 2012.
- I practice in Bronx Family Court, Child Support Litigation. Cases take longer because there is less time to hear them so they are adjourned more often. Litigants are forced to take more time from work. This causes stress for both the court and the litigants.
- An emergency hearing on continued remand of a child was halted because the case was called at 4:24 p.m., after all three attorneys had waited all day. The judge allowed no applications, although the attorney for the child wanted the child to go home.
- As a prosecutor, my experience has been that there are simply not enough judges, courtrooms and court personnel to hold the number of trials we should be having. Misdemeanors should not take more than a year to go to trial, yet virtually all of them do.
- I made a motion in April of this year. Oral argument was not heard until September. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I needed an adjournment in September. The oral argument was then rescheduled for late January. That means one simple motion has taken almost a year.
- I work with consumer debt defendants in Civil Court. The closure of child care centers has made it much more difficult and burdensome for many defendants to appear and assert their rights, and the cutback in hours has been downright devastating, particularly in Staten Island.
- In what would otherwise be a relatively brief (i.e., 2 hours) commercial landlord-tenant trial in Civil Court, Kings County, we were forced to spend a full day because a single Russian interpreter was staffing the courthouse. The trial could not commence because the interpreter was unavailable, and, mid-trial, the interpreter was directed away to another courtroom. The delay was so great that the trial judge felt compelled to leave the bench to personally search the courthouse for the interpreter.
- Since the budget cuts, the Family Courts had to cut resources such as mediation. This resource assisted the courts lessen the caseloads as parties were able to meet with a third party to come to a solution. Additionally in Queens Family Court, the CVO Intake Part is so inundated with cases that the standard wait time from the filing of a family offense petition to the first appearance is 4 months. This means that a Respondent who is not found to have committed any wrongdoing has an ex parte Order of Protection entered against him or her for 4 months without the opportunity to present evidence of his or her innocence. It is a huge miscarriage of justice.
- The judicial budget cuts have affected security in the courts as well, something particularly dangerous in matrimonial matters.
Our Preliminary Report, dated August 11, 2011, noted that the court system was confronted with a “perfect storm” of budget cuts of $176 million, an early-retirement program and a hiring freeze. In this fiscal year, now about two-thirds over, personnel reductions total approximately 1,500 members of the court staff. Court administrators have indicated to us that the budget cuts were made and implemented in a manner that would have the least impact on court operations. However, it is clear from the responses to the survey’s questions and the powerful comments written by 252 respondents, that despite the best efforts of court administrators, the impact has been significant and in some cases, quite serious. The responses to the survey reflect that access to justice has suffered, backlogs continue to mount, court staff morale is on the decline, senior managerial positions remain unfilled and various services to the public are greatly reduced.
In our continuing investigation, on December 2, 2011, NYCLA held an all-day public hearing at which testimony was heard from court administrators, judges, attorneys, public policy advocates, senior administrators from The Legal Aid Society, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and others. We will issue a report on those proceedings shortly. However, based upon the responses to our survey, it seems irrefutable that there has been a significant decline in access to justice as a direct result of the budget cuts, with serious due process implications.
The judicial budget cuts have had a negative impact on the
administration of justice.
The court’s efficiency has been compromised.
As a result of the judicial budget cuts:
As a result of the judicial budget cuts:
The public’s access to justice has declined as a result of a judicial
Litigation costs for the public have increased.
Which of the following best describes you? I am…
Please indicate the number of years you have been an attorney or
worked in the court system.