On The Case

‘This is a situation abusers can really take advantage of’- family court lawyer

(Reuters) - In mid-March, Anna Maria Diamanti, the director of the family and matrimonial practice at the nonprofit Her Justice, was supposed to be on trial in family court in New York City in a long-running custody case for a client who does not have visitation rights with her children. That trial was adjourned when a lawyer on the other side told the court that she had been exposed to COVID-19. Over the next two week, Diamanti said, the response of New York’s family court system to the coronavirus snowballed: from individual adjournments to limited proceedings to no in-person proceedings at all. As of last Thursday, family courthouses are shuttered. Judges are still hearing emergency petitions for orders of protection and orders to remove children from their parents but those hearings will take place only by phone or videoconference. Everything else is on indefinite hold.

“You literally can’t go (to court),” said Diamanti, who oversees more than a thousand cases, the bulk of them handled pro bono by lawyers from big firms that partner with Her Justice. “The buildings are locked.” (Full disclosure: My daughter is a legal assistant at Her Justice.)

The courts’ shutdown has sown confusion and uncertainty, Diamanti said. Family courts in New York are not set up for electronic filing. Before the virus struck, petitioners or their lawyers were required to file papers in person. So the new process of sending emergency petitions to a central email address has provoked a lot of questions, Diamanti said.

“Who are we supposed to call? What are we supposed to do? Do we just email it in? Do we get a confirmation that it was received?” she said.

Even if the new system works, Diamanti said she’s worried that sheriffs’ offices won’t be notified and the orders won’t be served on abusers. Ordinarily, she said, family court clerks handle notification. But with clerks’ offices closed, she said, Her Justice is advising lawyers and clients to call sheriffs’ offices themselves to make sure protection orders are served.

And that’s for clients who are able to make contact with the nonprofit. Diamanti said her biggest fear is for victims who can’t safely access phones or computers or who are subject to abuse that would not justify an emergency petition but is nonetheless debilitating. One Her Justice client has already gotten word to her lawyers that they should not try to reach her by phone or email because she’s afraid her abuser, with whom she’s now cloistered at home, will see the messages, Diamanti said. Another client suspected that her partner was exposing their immunosuppressed child to COVID-19 but didn’t have sufficient facts to file an emergency petition.

“This is a situation abusers can really take advantage of,” Diamanti said. “And what’s really scary – for pro se folks who don’t already have a lawyer, and that’s going to be the vast majority of people seeking an order of protection - do they even know where to start?”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said Sunday that reports of domestic violence have declined in recent weeks but that the reduction may be due to fear of reporting rather than fewer occurrences.

Diamanti’s own job, she said, has changed as family court rules shifted. There’s no point trying to match most would-be clients with lawyers because the court is only hearing emergency petitions. Instead, Diamanti said, she’s focused on advising and monitoring. Before the courts shut down entirely, for instance, Her Justice intervened with a clerk when a client attempting to file an emergency petition was told she could not enter the courthouse. (The client, Diamanti said, was eventually allowed inside to hand over the filing.) Now, she said, “We tell clients, ‘Check in with us if there’s a problem, if an emergency arises, if you have concerns about your safety or your children’s safety. But right now we can’t get you a lawyer because there’s no mechanism for the lawyer to do anything (other than in emergency cases).’”

Diamanti - who is holed up in Brooklyn with her cat wondering when she’ll get to see her parents in Rhode Island again - predicts that family courts will be swamped with new cases when they eventually reopen. In particular, she’s anticipating a wave of child support litigation, both from parents who want to reduce their payments because they’ve lost their jobs and from those who want more money in child support from ex-partners who are still employed. And in the back of her mind, Diamanti is worried that the escalation in demand for her group’s help will come just as its big law firm partners begin to reckon with revenue declines from the virus’ economic fallout.

“The firms we work with regularly are very devoted to us,” she said. “But it doesn’t change their reality … It just all remains to be seen.”