Going to Court “Virtually” During the Pandemic

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By Rakesh Rampertab, Esq.

The COVID-19 health pandemic has changed daily life significantly. Our judicial system in New York has not been spared. There is a tremendous delay in proceedings. In some instances, such as the foreclosure departments, nothing much is happening. Landlord and tenant courts here in New York City are swamped with a backlog of cases to be processed, with hundreds of new cases being filed currently since a moratorium barring eviction has ended.

The courts are unlikely to send droves of tenants into the streets, as litigants are allowed unusual leniency because of this pandemic. Judges are unwilling to have persons arrested and incarcerated, or find someone in contempt of court orders, which can carry with it instant arrest in a courtroom (e.g., a stubborn parent who refuses to pay owed child support despite multiple warnings).

While courts are accessible, this access is severely restricted. Most cases are now being processed “virtually,” or electronically—meaning that members of the public and court officials appear by use of electronic devices, namely computers, laptops, and /or their mobile telephones, with an option for someone to also call in to a court during a proceeding.

As to filing cases or documents, courts appear to vary with rules so one should call in and check their rules. The Supreme Court, Queens County, still allow people unrepresented by attorneys to walk in and file/submit documents. Attorneys have to file new cases electronically, but for old so-called “paper” cases, unless they are converted to being an e-filing case, we have to mail documents into the court—the exception being if everyone agrees (with judge’s permission) to send documents via emails to the court.

Also, attorneys are required to send a Notice of Electronic filing to all defendants when they start new cases for their clients. This notice says that one who has no attorney gets the option to process the case electronically using the New York State Courts Electronic Filing (NYSCEF) system.

Jury trials are now starting back, slowly. Two weeks ago, I was physically in the jury coordinating part at the Supreme Court, Kings County in downtown Brooklyn. Attorneys appear here to settle cases or select jury members and proceed to trial. Our matter that day involved someone who sued my clients after allegedly falling on their sidewalk, in what is usually called a “slip/trip and fall” case.

This part of the Brooklyn courthouse, normally packed, was not crowded. Attorneys and court officials wore masks but it was difficult to properly observe the 6-feet social distancing rule. Court employees are not allowed to work from home anymore, and must be vaccinated. Indeed, only recently, a warning has been issued that unvaccinated employees may be sent home from work.

Attorneys and their clients, however, do not have to travel to or be in court. On one hand, this saves time but on the other, the legal process has become informal and artificial due to the electronic atmosphere which now surrounds the courtroom. This is not good. As noted before, most cases are now processed via electronic means; this will go on and some things will not change back to how they were before.

Therefore, people should prepare to appear in court by way of using an electronic device (e.g., computer or laptop or cell phone). Further, they should install the program known as Microsoft Teams on their device because this is what the courts use. Courts also require an email through which it can send links and documents regarding a court proceeding.

The courts recognize that some are uncomfortable using electronic devices, and one option allowed is for someone to call in by telephone using a number provided by a court. They will be heard by the court and the other party, but not seen. However, in some cases such as divorce or family related matters, judges want to see the parties—even if virtually, because of the usual associated sensitivity.

Recently, in a family offence proceeding (i.e., an “order of protection” matter), my client, a mother, did not have a computer and used her cell phone to call in, but the judge requested that she get someone to install the Micro Teams “app” on her phone so we can see her. My client was scared for her life and in need of protection. It was important to interact with her in a very personal or face-to-face manner.

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not legal advice. One may contact the attorney of this article at (917) 943-1336 or via rrampertabesq@gmail.com.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.