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Volunteer Lawyers Project helps prepare attorneys for COVID-related custody cases

July 7, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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The Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project held a continuing legal education seminar on Wednesday, July 1 where they discussed child support cases and COVID-19 related impact.

The 90-minute CLE was hosted by Sidney Cherubin, the director of legal services at the VLP, and Joanne Reece, the head of the Family Law section. CLEs hosted by the VLP are free to attorneys who agree to take pro bono cases.

Typical CLEs cover the areas of family law, foreclosure intervention, consumer debt, estate planning, uncontested divorce, guardianship and surrogate’s court. However, with so many questions surrounding the courts right now many of their CLEs have also been crash courses in the latest COVID-19 related developments.

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“What I’m finding and what we have been seeing is that the biggest issue since the pandemic is the lack of access to the court,” Reece said. “The court has basically been closed since March 17, and people have not been able to file petitions since then, and even today people aren’t able to file non-emergency petitions.

“These are people seeking a modification because they have been out of work since March or even before and they have not been able to file a petition,” she said.

Cherubin mentioned that he has encouraged clients to file their petitions in mail so that at least there is a documented attempt at filing a claim.

“One of the things that you could potentially do is prepare the petition and mail it in,” Cherubin said. “There you have an envelope that has been date stamped and you can make the argument that I tried to get a modification as of this day and through no fault of my own I wasn’t able to get my day in court.”

Reece added that while the courts themselves may not be able to adjust arrears, lawyers should attempt to negotiate in good faith, especially on orders where money is paid specifically for expenses like child care, or summer camp, which may not actually be needed during the pandemic.

“Some of those expenses haven’t been taking place,” Reece said. “A lot of people are home and don’t need to pay for child care … In the interest of fairness, knowing that the noncustodial parent is being billed for expenses that haven’t been experienced, maybe it’s time for the attorney to point that out and maybe offset the arrears in some way.

“That’s a basis for modification … I’m paying for child care, but I know they haven’t used child care. Should they still be paying for it? Keep that in mind because the court may not be able to adjust the arrears in these orders, but the parties can,” she said.

The VLP is a not-for-profit organization that provides free legal services to indigent Brooklynites and New Yorkers. It regularly hosts required attorney training events known as continuing legal education in exchange for lawyers agreeing to help people for free.

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