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Benchmarks: Journal of the New York State Unified Court System

Rural Integrated Domestic Violence Courts: 4th Judicial District Makes It Work

BY ANITA WOMACK-WEIDNER

For nearly two years, Judge Timothy Lawliss juggled family, criminal and matrimonial cases as the only judge who routinely presided over IDV courts in three counties. While that tri-county arrangement changed in April (giving Franklin County its own IDV judge, Hon. Robert G. Main Jr.), Judge Lawliss continues to preside over IDV courts in Essex and Clinton Counties — and that is in addition to his duties as the judge of the Clinton County Family Court.  
Hon. Timothy J. Lawliss
Hon. Timothy J. Lawliss

IDV courts, based on the one-family/ one-judge concept, allow one judge — rather than different judges in different courts — to handle related criminal, family and matrimonial cases where the underlying issue is domestic violence. The goal is to promote better-informed, consistent judicial decision-making, provide integrated services to family members and increase offender accountability while protecting the rights of all litigants. It also improves overall court efficiency.

“The typical IDV court scenario is a woman married to or living with her abuser, with whom she has a child,” said Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for Court Operations and Planning Judy Harris Kluger, who oversees IDV court expansion around the state. “He may be charged in a local criminal court with assault, and there may be cases pending in Family Court for custody, visitation or family offense charges.”

On alternating Tuesdays, Judge Lawliss can be found in either the city of Plattsburgh (Clinton County) or Elizabethtown (Essex County). Typically the IDV caseload in Essex County can take one-half day to a full day. In Clinton, he has a heavier IDV caseload and generally spends threequarters to a full day there. On occasion, he handles cases on a Tuesday morning in one place and holds a trial in the afternoon in the other location. The rest of his week is spent in Clinton County Family Court, where he handles about 2,000 cases a year.

“I handle multiple cases involving the same family,” said Judge Lawliss. “While it might take a longer period of time in terms of handling the cases that day, it’s a lot easier on the families involved. And it’s better decision-making on the part of the judge.”

Judge Lawliss sometimes makes the 50-mile trek between Clinton and Essex counties near the Canadian border using back roads and going through snow drifts and blinding whiteouts.

“The toughest part of implementing [an] IDV court is back office support,” said Judge Jan H. Plumadore, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for Courts Outside New York City, who was instrumental in the courts’ planning when he was the 4th Judicial District Administrative Judge. “It’s labor intensive for the judge, but even more so for the back office and great care has to be taken to make sure they don’t burn out.”

Judge Plumadore called setting up the IDV courts in Essex, Clinton and Franklin counties “a remarkable effort” mostly because “the clerks there are star quality and the three very good District Attorneys worked really hard to get this going.” “Judge Lawliss is a labor-intensive judge,” said Chief Clerk of Supreme, County and Family Courts Jan Lavigne. “Everyone leaves his court with typed orders. He handles two to three cases per half hour. And let me tell you, to keep that volume going, you have to be so organized. Someone is taking orders. Another staff person is sitting outside and writing orders of protection while he’s moved on to the next case.”

“The atmosphere in every court will vary with the personality of the presiding judge,” said Judge Plumadore. “You will see efficiency and crispness in Judge Lawliss’ court. He’s very good at reaching the issue and articulating what should be done.”

Although an IDV court brings related matters before the same judge, the cases are not consolidated. Each retains its separate identity and is heard separately. Judge Lawliss calls criminal cases first, and only the district attorney and defense counsel can address the court. During a family or matrimonial matter, the district attorney doesn’t address the court. Local protocols regarding how cases are called may differ, said Judge Kluger, but each IDV court maintains the integrity of each case and observes all confidentiality requirements.

“IDV courts are a tremendous step forward in providing what I call true access to justice,” said Liberty Aldrich, Director of Domestic Violence and Family Court Programs at the Center for Court Innovation. “The courts aim to simplify the process for victims, but it’s not just a question of making their lives easier, it’s a question of making the courts available. If you say you have to be in three courts at the same time, you’re saying you don’t care about making the courts accessible.” New York reorganized its court structure to better meet the needs of people who experience domestic violence, added Aldrich. “New York has taken it a step further than anywhere else in the country by bringing together all of the cases,” said Aldrich. “Other states have been working to bring together the civil and criminal parts, but New York is on the forefront.”

Visit www.nycourts.gov/ip/domesticviolence for more information about New York’s IDV courts.

New York’s IDV Courts

New York’s first IDV courts opened in Bronx and Westchester counties in fall 2001, followed by courts in Rensselaer, Suffolk, Monroe and Onondaga counties. Today, more than three quarters of all New Yorkers live in counties served by IDV courts, in rural communities as far north as the Canadian border, urban centers across the state and suburban areas in central and eastern New York. To date, the courts have assisted more than 4,000 families and handled nearly 17,000 cases.

Ten new IDV sites are planned for this year (bringing the total number to 28) in the following counties: Kings, Niagara, Chautauqua, Broome, Oswego, Hamilton, Fulton, Montgomery, St. Lawrence and Orange. Officials hope to have IDV courts available to all New Yorkers by the end of 2006.

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Web page updated: September 1, 2006 - www.NYCOURTS.gov