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Child CustodyNew York’s Family Court: A Conflict Between Privacy and Transparency

December 8, 2011

16002-New York Family CourtThe courtrooms of New York’s Family Court are supposed to be open to the public, but, in practice they are not.   William Glaberson recently reported in The New York Times that the courtrooms are often off limits to all but the litigants and their attorneys.

The Florida Divorce Blog commenting on the Time’s article, enumerated some of the ways in which access to the courtroom is limited:

  •  Courtroom doors are locked;
  •  Do Not Enter and Stop signs are posted on courtroom doors;
  •  Signs are posted proclaiming that only people on official business may enter; and
  •   Guards challenging those seeking entrance to courtrooms.

My experience in Family Court is that until a case is called, the litigants must wait outside the courtroom in a waiting area.  Only the parties and their attorneys are allowed in the courtroom.

That the Court violates its own rules is indefensible. A judicial tribunal should not be allowed to arbitrarily select which rules are to be enforced and which may be ignored.  What kind of example does that set for the litigants whose cases the courts are adjudicating?  Can some laws simply be disregarded without consequence?

On the other hand, is the denial of access to family court proceedings really a bad thing?  The often gut wrenching issues in Family Court involve intimidate details of families in distress; the Family Court hears cases involve domestic violence, child abuse and child custody.  The litigants should have the right to some privacy and not to be compelled to air their dirty laundry to anyone who is simply curious to listen.

Absolute rules – requiring, on one hand, completely open the courtrooms and, on the other hand, justifying justice shrouded in secrecy –don’t work.  Clearly, there has to be some transparency to the system.  While there are rules of procedures in place, there has to be transparency to ensure that the rules are followed to prevent the “system” from running roughshod over the rights of litigants. Nevertheless, the need for the system’s transparency has to be measured against the families’ need for privacy.

As long as there is a rule requiring that the courtrooms must be open and accessible to the public, the rule should be enforced.   A judge, however, should have the discretion upon a litigant’s request or when taking testimony of a sensitive nature to close the courtroom.


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