Should Family Court Be Open to the Public? A Lawyer’s Perspective.

The NY Family Courts have recently come under scrutiny for a 1997 law that is not being enforced.  A NY Times article published on November 17, 2011 entitled, New York Family Courts Say Keep Out, Despite Order, highlights the issue.  The article states that although Family Court has had an open door policy since 1997, the Courts and court officers routinely refuse members of the public into the courtrooms.  The article paints the Family Court as a secretive society where deals are brokered in back rooms and Judges terminate parents rights with the wave of their magical gavel.  This distorted image of Family Court could not be further from the truth.

As an attorney who routinely practices in Nassau County Family Court, I would like to set the record straight.  Family Court does not need to be open to the public to make sure the judges and their staff are held accountable to the community.  The members of Family Court from the judges to the court officers, all work tirelessly for the community of Nassau County.  There are of course the few employees out there who do not perform their duties to the standards of the rest, but there is a simpler solution than opening courtrooms to the public.

I suggest that the Family Court develop anonymous surveys and provide them through the local Bar Association to the attorneys.  The attorneys would then anonymously rate the court personnel in a similar manner to the way students rate their professors at college.  Attorneys sit in the trenches of the courthouses day in and day out and they are the players that have first hand experience dealing with judges and their staff.  I recommend that attorneys complete the surveys because parties in a Family Court proceeding are understandably biased and if a Court’s determination does not favor them they are likely to place blame on the court system instead of on the facts and circumstances, which lead to being in court in the first place.

Another serious reason for not allowing the public in courtrooms is the nature of the issues being discussed.  Many times sensitive topics such as abuse and neglect are raised.  It is difficult enough for people to gather the courage to file for an Order of Protection against an abusive spouse or family member and if reporters were allowed to enter the courtrooms these individuals may shy away from seeking protection through the courts for fear of reprisals or retribution from the proceedings being made public.

I find as an attorney that the people who most want access to the courtrooms are the parties’ family members and while these people are a source of support for clients they can also hinder settlement.  In addition, if one party brings their family entourage and the other party to the proceedings has no support, the party without support in the courtroom may feel additional pressure to settle.

I wholeheartedly believe that people should be held accountable in their place of employment and judges are no exception.  However, there are easier and certainly more effective ways to accomplish this goal than opening Family Court to the public.