THE FAMILY COURT IN NEW YORK STATE
In 1962, the New York State Legislature passed the Family Court Act, which created a
statewide Family Court. The Family Court replaced the Domestic Relations Court of the City of
New York and the Children's Courts outside New York City.
The Family Court was given jurisdiction over most issues involving children and families,
including paternity, custody, visitation, child support, child abuse and neglect, delinquency, and
violence and abuse among family members. The Family Court does not have jurisdiction over
divorce, separation, or annulment proceedings, which are heard in Supreme Court. Jurisdiction over
adoptions is shared with the Surrogate's Court, which also oversees inheritance cases.
Family Court differs from the other courts in New York’s justice system in several ways.
First, there are no jury trials in the Family Court. Second, unlike the criminal courts, it was not
designed to mete out punishment for criminal offenses. Third, when the Family Court was created,
it was not intended to be adversarial; rather, it was intended to be a "remedial" court, in which a
judge uses the professional staff of the court, and of other governmental and private agencies, to
devise programs to resolve family problems. This distinctive approach is reflected in the
terminology used in Family Court: Plaintiffs, complainants, and the prosecution are called
"petitioners"; defendants are called "respondents"; trials are designated "fact-finding hearings"; and
sentences are known as "dispositional orders." However, in today’s Family Court, children are
usually represented by counsel; adult parties also may be represented by counsel, whether private or
assigned. Moreover, the Family Court must resolve some of the most intimate, contentious
problems facing individuals and families. Thus, as a practical matter, it often is an adversarial court.
Although the Family Court technically is an open court (and has been “open” since its
inception), the often-sensitive nature of proceedings has led many judges and court administrators to
operate as though it were a closed court. In addition, most Family Court courtrooms are small and
unable to accommodate large numbers of spectators.
In June, 1997, the Office of Court Administration issued new rules reaffirming that the
Family Court is an open court, and directing that the public and press be given broad access. The
rules, which became effective on September 2, 1997, provide that
the Family Court is open to the public. Members of the public, including the
news media, shall have access to all courtrooms, lobbies, public waiting
areas and other common areas of the Family Court otherwise open to
individuals having business before the court. Judges may exclude the public
only on a case-by-case basis.