The Family Court of the State of New York has the authority to decide cases affecting children and families’ lives. The court has a wide range of powers to fit the needs of the people who come before it.
The Family Court Act gives the Family Court power to hear certain types of cases. Each case filed is given its own identifying number, called a “docket number.”
The docket number begins with a letter that identifies the type of case filed:
AC: Adoption Pre-Certification
AS: Judicial Surrender
B: Permanent Termination of Parental Rights D: Juvenile Delinquency
E: Designated Felony
F: Child or Spousal Support
K: Foster Care Review
L: Voluntary Foster Care Approval
M: Marriage Application
O: Family offense (order of protection)
S: PINS (Person in Need of Supervision)
U: Interstate support
V: Visitation and Custody of Children
In New York City, each of the five boroughs has its own Family Court. Generally, a case may be filed for free in the county where one of the parties lives.
The Office of the Self-Represented helps those who represent themselves to prepare and file court papers, including petitions and motions. The Office of the Self-Represented will give legal information but not legal advice.
Judges preside over most Family Court hearings (trials). Support Magistrates hear child or spousal support and paternity cases. Court Attorney Referees attend custody, visitation, and foster-care matters. Judicial Hearing Officers (JHOs) hear some adoption and voluntary-placement foster-care cases. There are no juries in Family Court.
The Family Court is usually open to the public and the people directly involved in a particular case, also known as “the parties.” The judge or support magistrate presiding over each case may exclude the public from the courtroom if the claim involves private issues that would embarrass or harm families and children or for security reasons.
Each Family Court in New York City is open all day from Monday through Friday, except on holidays. At lunchtime (usually from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. or 2:15 p.m.), the hearing rooms in each courthouse close for a lunch recess, but each building remains open public.
Night Court is available on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays in the Bronx, Kings (Brooklyn), and Queens Counties for cases involving family offenses (violence), custody, visitation, guardianship, and support.
Persons scheduled to appear in court are expected to arrive at the courthouse on time. If a party is absent when the case is ready to be heard, the judge or support magistrates may begin and decide the point in that person’s absence or dismiss it. Parties should understand that even if they arrive early, they might be required to spend a long period of time at the courthouse because Family Court calendars are very busy.
The Family Courts in Bronx, Kings, New York (Manhattan), Queens, and Richmond (Staten Island) Counties have Childcare Centers, where children from six weeks to the age of 12 may stay while their parents or caregivers are in the courtroom. These Childcare Centers have experienced staff to take care of children while a case is being heard in court.
After a case has been completed and a final decision has been made, each party has the right to appeal the judge’s or court attorney referee’s decision. An appeal is a request for the court to take another look at the case. A support magistrate’s decisions are appealed first by filing an “objection” with the Family Court judge. The judge reviews the support magistrate’s decision, and then the judge’s decision may be appealed to the Appellate Division. An appeal may result in a decision being “affirmed” (left as is), “modified” (changed somewhat), or “reversed” (changed entirely).
The general public is not allowed to look at the court records of Family Court cases. The court may, however, let someone see the records if appropriate. Only people directly involved in a case, including the lawyers, are entitled to get a copy of a court order and other documents in the court file. They may wait in the courtroom or just outside the courtroom to get the order, or they may request a copy at the Record Room of the courthouse where the case was heard. Proof of identity is required to see or obtain copies of court records. A party is better off being represented by a lawyer when appearing in Family Court than appearing without one. As explained, for many types of Family Court cases, a party is entitled to have a court-appointed lawyer. In these cases, the party does not pay for the lawyer; the lawyer is paid with government funds. A party whose income is below a certain level (which varies with family size and other things) might help get help from a legal aid or legal services office. People who have cases should inquire about that in the Family Court clerk’s office.
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