Chief Judge Janet DiFiore has proposed a plan to overhaul New York State’s current court system with the aim of simplifying, streamlining and maximizing efficiency of the courts. The current court system is comprised of eleven distinct trial parts, including the Supreme Court, Court of Claims, Criminal Court, Civil Court, Family Court, Surrogate’s Court and, outside of New York City, local town and village courts. The proposal would consolidate various of the courts into a new Supreme Court with six divisions: Family, Probate, Criminal, State Claims, Commercial and General. NYC’s Civil and Criminal Courts would be brought under the umbrella of the Municipal Courts.
Currently, guardianship matters under Article 81 of the Mental Hygiene Law are heard by dedicated guardianship parts in the Supreme Court, with judges and staff who are trained and experienced in these specialized matters. The judges are familiar not only with the applicable statutes, rules, and caselaw but also with the unique considerations that guardianship matters require, such as the treatment of court evaluator reports, when it is appropriate to deem an Alleged Incapacitated Person as a “Person in Need of a Guardian”, and the cultural, religious, racial and ethnic considerations in the selection of an appropriate guardian. In addition, Article 81 guardianships require that judges and court personnel be familiar with various unique procedural aspects. These include, but are certainly not limited to, the particular service rules for initial guardianship filings; the procedures for appointing and compensating fiduciaries under Part 36 of the Rules of the Chief Judge; the performance of background checks for potential guardians; the necessary decretal provisions to be included in final orders and judgments; and the required components of a guardian or court examiner’s report.
Judge DiFiore’s proposal would effectively eliminate these dedicated guardianship parts. It is unclear from the new proposal under which of the six new Supreme Court divisions guardianship matters would fall. The elimination of the specialized guardianship parts staffed by knowledgeable judges and other court personnel would be detrimental to the elderly and disabled persons who are the subjects of guardianship proceedings, to the guardians who serve the court and their wards, and to the professionals who work in the area of guardianships. If the court overhaul proposal goes forward, these concerns must be discussed and addressed before any such court reform is approved and implemented.