The Committee also shares budgetary oversight of the Office of Court Administration and the Department of Law with the Assembly Ways and Means Committee. A top priority of the Committee each year is ensuring that funding is added to the state budget for civil legal services for low-income New Yorkers. Once again, this year, in light of the lasting impact of the economic crisis on already scarce funding resources for civil legal services and on the rising and unmet demand for these services, the Judiciary Committee remained a strong advocate for providing civil legal services to those in need.
In 2015, the Judiciary Committee tackled many high profile issues including reform of spousal maintenance laws and interstate child support, protections for domestic violence victims and children, free speech safeguards, and protections for the elderly and disabled, many of which have been enacted into law.
The highlights that follow demonstrate the breadth and diversity of the Judiciary Committee’s work in 2015.
Civil Legal Services
This year, in furtherance of Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s commitment to advance access to justice, the legislature adopted a resolution recognizing that New Yorkers living at or below 200 percent of the Federal poverty guidelines should have effective legal assistance in civil legal matters such as housing, family, access to healthcare, education and subsistence income. The Assembly has long recognized that civil legal services are an essential social safety net for the most vulnerable of our state’s population for a long time. In 2015, the Assembly built on its support for civil legal services in New York State by increasing its appropriation for civil legal services through the Judiciary budget by $15 million for a total of $85 million to help bridge the tremendous gap between civil legal service needs of low-income New Yorkers and the availability of services to meet these needs. As part of the SFY 2015-16 budget, the Assembly also restored its traditional funding for civil legal services in the amount of $2.65 million and $609,000 for domestic violence programs.
The statewide independent Office of Indigent Legal Services, created in the SFY 2010-11 budget along with its Indigent Legal Services Board, is responsible for overseeing and directing state-appropriated funds to New York State’s county-based public defense services with the goal of ensuring a uniform and improved public defense delivery system statewide. With the help of advocacy from the Assembly Judiciary Committee, the SFY 2015-16 enacted budget appropriated $86.9 million for the Office, which is an increase of $4 million from last year, to support quality improvements for upstate public defender offices and to support the operations of the Office.
Reforming new york state’s spousal maintenance laws
Establishing Spousal Maintenance Guidelines. A long awaited measure that establishes post-divorce spousal maintenance guidelines was enacted this session, continuing New York State’s reforms of its divorce and spousal maintenance laws. This measure enjoys broad support from a wide cross-section of practitioners including the New York State Bar Association, Women’s Bar Association, New York American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers as well as a broad coalition of non-profit legal service providers that represent low-income women and domestic violence survivors.
This law will make significant improvements for many divorcing spouses including introducing consistency and predictability for litigants and addressing the concerns of diverse populations, such as domestic violence survivors, lower and middle income families and families with exceptional wealth. It will increase access to justice for moderate and low-income spouses who cannot afford to litigate and it will enhance equity and fairness for all while reducing costs and delays. L. 2015, c. 269, A.7645 – Weinstein.
Another spousal maintenance reform measure enacted this session makes clear that spousal maintenance actually paid or to be paid is money no longer available as income to the payor, but constitutes income to the payee for purposes of calculating child support, so long as the order or agreement for such maintenance is in effect. L. 2015, c. 387, A.7637 – Seawright.
Court practice and administration of justice
Following are some reforms the Judiciary Committee has worked on to make our justice system more responsive, fair and efficient.
E-filing in civil and criminal court. This law authorizes expansion of the use of electronic means for the filing of certain papers in judicial proceedings (e-filing) and enhances safeguards for pro se litigants. E-filing has largely proven to be a success, saving time and money for litigants and the courts. This measure is responsive to the input of the bar, the courts, and the county clerks to help ensure that the impact on the rights of litigants and on their access to the courts is given due consideration. L. 2015, c. 237, A.8083 – Weinstein.
Aiding deaf and hard of hearing persons in court. This law allows court reporters to provide instantaneous translation of everything that is spoken in the court room, via a real-time feed, which can be displayed on a computer or monitor in court for convenient viewing. This measure is a major step forward in the use of technology to protect the rights of deaf and hard of hearing. L. 2015, c. 272, A.7939A – Weinstein.
Protecting personal safety in name change publications. Responding to concerns about personal safety, this law amends the publication requirement in certain circumstances by limiting the amount of information that must be published to finalize a name change. L. 2015, c. 241, A.2242 – Bronson.
Ensuring that pre-trial summary determinations are made based upon all available evidence. Where there are no material issues of fact, a case can be decided without the parties having to resort to a full-blown trial. This law would require that determinations of such lawsuits be based upon all expert testimony available, and not just expert testimony affidavits previously exchanged. L. 2015, c.237, A.6265 - Kaminsky.
Frivolous Lawsuits Against Public Participation (Anti-SLAPP). This measure would protect citizens from frivolous litigation that is intended to silence their exercise of the rights of free speech and petition about matters of public concern. A.258 – Weinstein (Passed Assembly Only).
The 2015-2016 State budget adopted the Judiciary’s budget request for appropriations in the amount of $2.8 billion. The court’s Judiciary budget absorbs statutorily-mandated salary increments for represented non-judicial employees, statutorily-mandated increases for indigent legal defense, supplemental funds for IOLA, and a much needed increase in funding for civil legal services to address the crisis in legal services funding. The Court Administration proposes to maintain current staffing levels, filling a limited number of positions critical to operations.
Protecting Domestic Violence Victims and Children
The Judiciary Committee worked on a number of measures in response to the needs of domestic violence victims, families and children. Below are a few of the measures advanced by the Judiciary Committee.
Enabling greater involvement of relatives in cases involving child abuse or neglect. This measure enables greater notice to and participation by non-respondent parents and relatives in child protective proceedings, and it clarifies rights and procedures applicable to parents in simultaneously pending child welfare and custody proceedings. L. 2015, c.567, A.6715- Weinstein.
Remote petitioning for temporary orders of protection. This law enacted by the legislature establishes a pilot program in family courts for remote petitioning and issuance by audiovisual means of temporary orders of protection. It provides victims of domestic violence with a safer and more accessible avenue for obtaining a temporary order of protection. L. 2015, c. 367, A.6262 – Joyner.
Uniform Interstate Family Support Act. Pursuant to federal requirements the legislature adopted changes to the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act that provide a roadmap for interstate and foreign child support orders. L. 2015, c. 347, A7636B – Weinstein.
Protecting victims from having to choose between safety and housing. This bill would prevent local nuisance ordinances from directly or indirectly jeopardizing the housing of victims of domestic violence simply for accessing police or emergency assistance. A.1322 – Lavine (Passed Assembly only).
Safeguarding and expanding legal remedies for victims of domestic violence. This bill recognizes the unique nature of acts of domestic violence and allows victims additional time to press their claims in court. In most cases, this would expand the statute of limitation from one to two years. A.7037 – Zebrowski (Passed Assembly Only).
Protecting due process rights of parents in custody cases. This measure addresses longstanding due process concerns with limited access to information bearing on parental access to their children. It provides uniform access to court ordered forensic mental health evaluation reports and underlying data by litigants, their counsels and the attorney for the child in child custody and visitation cases. A.290 – Weinstein (Advanced to third reading).
Uniform Guardianship Act clarified. This law makes a much needed amendment to the Uniform Adult Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Jurisdiction Act to resolve ambiguities concerning the right of guardians appointed in other states to appear in New York courts and dispose real estate. L. 2015, c. 458, A.7596 – Weinstein.
Protecting against abusive guardianship petitions. This measure would prevent misuse of the guardianship law. It would end a disturbing practice by some nursing homes that file guardianship petitions against vulnerable nursing home residents, over the objections of family members, primarily for the purpose of bill collection, A.6510 – Weinstein (Passed Assembly Only).
The Assembly Judiciary Committee advanced and clarified trust and estates laws to better meet the needs of New Yorkers.
Interest on delayed legacy for posthumous child. This measure was enacted to ensure equal protection for children conceived after the death of a parent by establishing the commencement date for payment of a legacy with interest to a genetic posthumous child of a decedent entitled to inherit under the Estates Powers and Trusts Law. L. 2015, c. 438, A.6024A – Weinstein.
Clarifying requirements for a fiduciary to recant a decanting. This measure creates a roadmap for a trustee when it is necessary to recant a decanting during the thirty day period before the decanting takes effect. L. 2015, c. 441, A.6263 – Braunstein.
Protecting the estates of divorced individuals from wrongful distribution. This legislation requires a beneficiary of an estate who is related to the decedent’s previous spouse to prove that such distribution was intended by the decedent. A.7638– Seawright (Advanced To Third Reading).
Protecting Homeowners and Keeping Neighborhoods Safe
New York has been a national leader in confronting the foreclosure crisis affecting our citizens. The Assembly continues its work to facilitate settlements between borrowers and lenders and to rein in the abusive practices by lenders in foreclosure cases. The bills below were advanced to third reading.
Combatting abandoned Properties. To help protect our cities and neighborhoods from blight and attendant safety risks of vacant and abandoned properties, the Committee reported legislation proposed by Attorney General Schneiderman that would require lenders to maintain, before and during the foreclosure process, residential properties that are vacant and abandoned. It would also create a state registry of such properties to help with their early identification and maintenance and would provide financial resources to localities to facilitate compliance. A.6932 – Weinstein.
Mandatory settlement conference reform. New York law fosters early settlement of foreclosure actions to preserve homeownership. Unfortunately, some lenders frustrate the purpose of this law. This measure outlines the rights and remedies of parties to ensure compliance with the settlement conference law and its original purpose. A.1298 – Weinstein.
Defense of standing. This homeowner protection measure would ensure that only legally entitled parties bring foreclosure law suits against homeowners. It would also preserve homeowners’ related defenses. A.247 – Weinstein.
The Committee continued its focus of spearheading legal reforms as a leader in consumer protection.
Consumer Credit Fairness Act. This longstanding proposal of the Assembly, submitted this year by the NYS Attorney General, would reform abusive litigation practices concerning consumer debt collection. A.4438 – Weinstein (Advanced to third reading).
Protections in improper debt collection cases. While the Attorney General and District Attorneys can sue debt collectors for violating state law during collection efforts, citizens who face this behavior cannot. This bill would allow private citizens to enforce their own rights, where the government either cannot or will not do so. A.4619 – Simotas (Advanced to third reading).
Protecting workers from employers who illegally withhold wages. This measure ensures that assets of the employer will be available to compensate wage theft victims who obtain judgment against their employers, increasing the likelihood of recovery. A.5501- Rosenthal (Advanced to third reading).