A Queens judge recently ruled that lawmakers should take a closer look at a statute allowing unmarried partners to seek protections in Family Court, finding that it has been stretched to include matters that serve as “distractions” from more serious domestic assault cases.
But some practitioners say the law serves litigants by keeping disputes out of Criminal Court and that they are happy with keeping the law as is.
In June, Queens Family Court Judge John Hunt said that an “overburdened” Family Court could benefit from state lawmakers taking another look at provisions of the Family Court Act, a 45-year-old statute that was amended a decade ago to allow partners in intimate relationships to seek orders of protection in Family Court.
Hunt’s ruling concerned a dispute between parties identified in court papers as Maliha A. and Onu M. who were in a romantic relationship for five years before going through a “bitter breakup” last year and, despite a mutual agreement not to contact each other, got into a nonviolent spat through texts and social media after Maliha took to Twitter to air her grievances.
In June, Maliha filed for a protective order against her boyfriend, arguing that while he was never violent toward her during their relationships, “there is no telling what he might say or do,” according to Hunt’s decision.
After holding a trial, Hunt dismissed Maliha’s petition, but went further to say that, while he does not seek to minimize the societal harms that domestic violence creates, a significant number of intimate relationship cases like those involving significant others such as Maliha and Onu have nothing to do with domestic violence.
In these types of cases, the judge said, jurists are often called to step in as an unofficial “minister of bad breakups” rather than legal authority. The unintended consequence of the FCA, Hunt said, is that parties can file petitions for “nothing more than name calling that results in hurt feelings, and disrespectful behavior manifested by ill-advised posts on social media or extreme text messages.”
“These types of petitions have become a distraction from the more serious matters on the court’s calendar and conflict with the purpose of the statute—to provide domestic violence victims with a remedy,” Hunt said.
But Betsy Kramer, the director of policy and special litigation for Lawyers for Children, noted that the state statute wasn’t specifically drafted to protect parties of physical violence at the hands of their partners, it was intended to include victims of harassment by their intimate partners as well.
Kramer said that if filings by feuding lovers are clogging up the courts, as Hunt suggests, then a better way for the State Assembly to approach the problem would be to provide more resources to the courts rather than limiting the law.
“I think that broadening the availability of access to the courts to obtain orders of protection was an important step for the Legislature to take,” Kramer said.
Kramer also took issue with Hunt’s statement that, because there is no filing fee to seek a protective order from a Family Court, “all grievances can be aired at no cost,” noting that proceedings for an order can cost litigants work time or require them to pay for child care.
Litigants can seek protective orders from Family Court in cases where a complaint to police did not result in an arrest or if they did not prevail in Criminal Court.
Bernard Clair, a matrimonial attorney with Cohen Clair Lans Greifer Thorpe & Rottenstreich, said the law extends the protections of Family Court past married couple and lauded the fact that it minimizes the caseloads for criminal courts.
“I think there’s a good reason for that,” Clair said.
Eric Tepper, of Gordon, Tepper & DeCoursey who chairs the New York State Bar Association’s Family Law Section, said he does not agree that there needs to be changes to the law. He said that, while sometimes litigants abuse the process, allowing petitions for protective orders to go to Family Court can keep litigants from getting arrested.
“If the case is frivolous, it’s up to the judge to dismiss the case,” he said. Tepper also said that he has not heard any concerns similar to Hunt’s from judges presiding over courts in the Capital Region, where he practices.
But Joseph DeSimone, also a Cohen Clair matrimonial attorney, said the 2008 change to the FCA put additional burdens on the state’s family courts without increasing capacity to handle an influx of new cases, which may have slowed down the movement of cases that had already been waiting in the queue.
“It offers an alternative route, but I don’t know if there’s the infrastructure to accommodate it,” DeSimone said.