NY Courts Say Tech Improvements, Fluidity Key To Better Ops

By Adrian Cruz
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Law360 (December 17, 2020, 8:15 PM EST) -- A New York commission released a pair of reports this month recommending a variety of technological improvements to the state's appellate courts and increasing both access to justice and residents' options for legal services.

The Commission to Reimagine the Future of New York's Courts, created in June to look at how the state judiciary can use technology and online platforms to facilitate access-to-justice services released the reports on Thursday. Along with regulatory innovation and appellate, the commission also has working groups dedicated to trials, online courts, technology and structural innovations.

"Each of today's reports contains invaluable recommendations, serving to guide the court system in leveraging technology, exploring new approaches and harnessing the lessons learned from operating amid the pandemic to build a more efficient justice system that promotes access to justice and can readily adapt to society's rapidly changing demands," New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said in a statement.

The regulatory innovation group suggested that trained social workers should be allowed to provide a limited set of legal services, saying that because they already have skills such as crisis management, interviewing and evaluation, they would be a natural fit for representing people for certain issues.

The report cited programs that have been created by states such as Utah, Arizona and Washington that would allow trained nonlawyers to offer services in cases involving small misdemeanors, family law and debt collections under a certain amount.

Another suggestion involves the expansion of a similar program already in place called Court Navigators, which trains law students, college students and others to aid unrepresented individuals in housing court and consumer debt matters.

While the report acknowledged that the nonlawyers wouldn't have the same skill or impact as a trained lawyer, it said that more than 90% of tenants being evicted are going into proceedings without counsel and that having somebody to help guide them through the process is still better than going solo, especially with most landlords retaining counsel for the disputes.

The second report suggested that New York's appellate courts should work on creating a stronger and more consistent technological system, saying it would improve things from both an efficiency and cybersecurity perspective.

Standardization was a major theme in the report's recommendations, with the commission suggesting there should be a uniform design among the appellate court websites and that they should establish a single case management system for all of the appeals courts in order to make it easier to maintain data integrity and simplify access.

It also suggested that the courts should continue to embrace virtual operations and use them in tandem with in-person operations to make it easier to switch between the two if another situation arises similar to the COVID-19 pandemic and courthouse access becomes restricted.

"The recommendations in these two reports will help capitalize on technology to enhance the efficiency of New York's appellate courts and close the justice gap," commission chair Henry Greenberg said in a statement. I am grateful beyond measure to the hard and inspired work of the commission's working groups on appellate practice led by Presiding Justice Rolando Acosta, and regulatory innovation led by Paul C. Saunders and Dean Michael A. Simons."

In August, the commission released another report that provided guidelines on how courts can safely operate during COVID-19. The report recommended that courts require screenings, including temperature checks, for visitors and provide masks, hand sanitizer and other personal protective equipment as recommended by health professionals. It also suggested that courtrooms are cleaned every night and that high-risk individuals shouldn't be required to appear in court.

A representative from the New York State Unified Court System didn't respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

--Editing by Jay Jackson Jr.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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