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With the start of the new year, there was a technological dawning in Manhattan Supreme Court: 14 judges and two mediators are now allowing attorneys to make certain types of court appearances by telephone. They are doing so on an experimental basis under the auspices of a Los Angles-based company that has set up the infrastructure for phone-in court appearances in 14 other states. The company, CourtCall, has a yearlong contract to run the program, which could be renewed for two more years. At that point, if the experiment is found successful, bids would be solicited to run the program on a permanent basis, said Jonathan F. Werner, the chief clerk in Manhattan Supreme Court. A list of the judges and mediators participating and details of the rules governing the plan are published under “Court Notes”. For the time being, the program will be financed solely by the $55 fee charged to attorneys each time they use CourtCall’s system for appearing by telephone. CourtCall spent “tens of thousands of dollars” on phone equipment and new phone lines for the 60 Centre Street courthouse, according to CourtCall’s chief executive officer, Robert V. Alvarado Jr. Should the system catch on, Alvarado said, it is possible the fee will be raised to $60, with the additional $5 being paid to the state treasury. Justice Jacqueline W. Silbermann, the administrative judge for the Supreme Court in Manhattan, said, “In this day and age it is appropriate that we experiment with not even high-tech — but low-tech — equipment: the telephone.” Phone appearances can save clients fees by cutting down on travel time and enable attorneys to make more appearances without having to travel from one courthouse to another, she said. Matthew J. Kelly of Roemer, Wallens & Mineaux said he had used a telephone appearance to avoid what otherwise would have been a nine-hour trip from Albany to Manhattan and back to handle a 45-minute initial mediation session. Instead, he said, he spent about 45 minutes with his speakerphone in earshot, waiting for his case to be called, and another 45 minutes in the mediation session. As a result, he added, his client saved several thousand dollars. And as an added bonus, during the 45 minute wait, Kelly was able to attend to other tasks before his case was called. About seven years ago, an initial effort was made to set up a phone in system, but it never got off the ground, recalled Werner, the court’s chief clerk. DIFFERENT RULES Each judge who has agreed to participate has defined the type of appearances they will permit by telephone. Depending upon the judge, attorneys can appear by phone at status conferences, various types of discovery conferences, oral argument of motions and pretrial conferences. The court’s two mediators, who attempt to settle the lion’s share of routine personal injury cases at 60 Centre Street, have agreed to permit the initial appearance before them by phone. Attorneys wishing to appear by phone must contact CourtCall at least five court days in advance of the appearance at (888) 882-6878. Alvarado said that in emergencies an attorney could be patched into an appearance in less time, assuming the judge is amenable. Attorneys are required to check in with a CourtCall operator five to 10 minutes before their scheduled court session starts. The operator will monitor the court session and connect the attorney once the case is called. For some portions of a court session, depending upon how a judge runs the courtroom, all attorneys waiting for their cases to be called will be able to hear what is happening. That could be the case during a calendar call when the court is simply trying to determine cases where all sides are present, or when the court wants to make a general announcement. Alvarado said the equipment used by CourtCall can simultaneously accommodate an unlimited number of attorneys. CONCERNS EXPRESSED Justice Stanley Sklar, who is permitting telephone appearances at the initial scheduling conference, but not at discovery compliance conferences, expressed concern that the use of phone appearances may put an added strain on court resources. He said that many attorneys work out the details of discovery schedules while they are in court waiting for their cases to be called. Only those issues that could not be worked out are then brought before a judicial hearing officer or ultimately a judge, he explained. There is a possibility, he said, that an attorney appearing by phone might not be able to work out those details with adversaries before all sides and the court were put together in a conference call. Were that to happen, he said, a judge or his law secretary might waste valuable time while the attorneys worked out details that could have been handled routinely without court intervention. Alvarado offered several ways in which that situation could be handled without unnecessarily draining court time. The attorney appearing by phone could tell the CourtCall operator of the need to be in contact with adversaries. The operator could then ask the court clerk to advise the other attorneys on the matter that they should need to contact CourtCall before the matter is reached on the calendar. In some courtrooms, there may be more than one conference phone, and additional phones might be available in either the robing or jury room. The attorneys could then use those phones to privately work out the schedule without any court involvement, Alvarado said. Even if other conference phones were not available, the attorneys present in the courtroom could use their cell phones to get patched into a conference call with the attorney appearing by telephone. Acting Justice Diane A. Lebedeff said that while initially some kinks may need to be resolved, “there is very little doubt the system will work,” and create “a significant cost savings” for clients by eliminating travel and waiting time.

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