Extended hours: Plymouth. The Plymouth District Court offers two night sessions a month from 4:30 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. The Court limits the case types scheduled for the evening session to business that will not cause undue strain on security and other staff.
Plymouth District Court Presiding First Justice Rosemary Minehan notes that extended hours are already having a positive impact on attendance at return dates. “If there’s an emergency DV [domestic violence] order at 3:00 a.m. from a judge, the alleged victim has to be at the courthouse at 9:00 a.m. that morning. We typically tell them to come back in ten days, but I feel torn telling people they have to take another day off of work to come back to court. It’s already stressful and traumatizing for them,” she explained. “The evening hours give us more flexibility to process more cases, more efficiently. It allows for much quicker hearings, and for additional hearings that would otherwise have to happen during a regular day.” Judge Minehan estimates that the extended hours pilot enables approximately 20-25 restraining orders a month to be pulled from regular court hours.
Word about the new evening hours has spread to local attorneys, who have started to come to court with clients not typically seen during the regular daytime sessions. “We’ve had several attorneys coming in now with their restraining order clients, who wouldn’t have had the time to come in before [the pilot started],” said Judge Minehan. “The lawyers get more billing hours in, and can work together to resolve some of their cases before they go to trial.”
Extended hours: Lynn. Meanwhile, the extended hours pilot at the Lynn District Court has had mixed results. Lynn District Court Presiding First Justice Albert Conlon and Clerk-Magistrate Jane Stirgwolt have found their biggest challenge has been to get the word out that the courthouse is open for business twice a month on Tuesday nights until 7:00 p.m. Arranging for adequate security coverage has been another ongoing issue.
“The existence of Lynn’s extended hours pilot reflects that Trial Court employees do want to make the criminal justice system more accessible,” said Clerk Stirgwolt, who has wanted to try extended hours since she first became a clerk in 1999. “We wanted to take this opportunity to be the pioneer, and to keep an open mind about trying something new. We’re still evaluating whether or not we have the resources to make [the pilot] a success.”
Clerk Stirgwolt believes that in many ways, the Lynn District Court is a perfect candidate for extended hours. She points out that Lynn, with its large working population of modest means, has a fair amount of court-related business; City Hall is next door and is open Tuesday evenings; and there is ample public transportation to and from the courthouse. An Innovation Grant gave the Lynn District Court the funds to publicize the later hours by posting notices in the courthouse, and advertising in local English and Spanish publications. Clerk Stirgwolt plans to re-start these efforts, and will reach out to the city’s sizeable Asian population in the fall.
While the Lynn pilot hasn’t seen as much traffic as originally expected, the response from those who have come into the courthouse after hours has been overwhelmingly positive. “More attorneys will come by as the news spreads,” predicts Clerk Stirgwolt. “We’re at the point where quite frankly we could have given up, or we can give it another push. We’ve decided to give another push.”
The Lynn pilot draws on court staff from both the criminal and civil departments. There is typically one cashier, an assistant clerk, plus Security and Probation, along with the Clerk-Magistrate. Finding volunteers for one evening a month is an ongoing process, but “there’s still so much support out there on making this work,” said Clerk Stirgwolt.
Challenges: Handling comp time. Court employees in Plymouth have been accommodating about the extended hours. “Overall, court staff is happy to get the comp time,” said Judge Minehan. “We let the Clerk decide the comp time with the agreement of our employees. They can come in later that day or take equal time off at another date. It’s not that much of a time commitment so there’s no drain of resources,” she said.
One issue that has arisen in both Lynn and Plymouth is how to ensure that judges and other management-level staff such as assistant clerks get comparable time-off for extra hours worked. “Judge Minehan says that detail needs to be worked out – that’s realistic,” says Clerk Stirgwolt. “Our judges are on the bench all day. Extended hours would mean extra work for our judges but they’re willing to consider that. It’s only five additional hours a month, but that could work if you had the option to take an afternoon or day off once those extra hours have accumulated.”
Both Judge Minehan and Clerk Stirgwolt hope Human Resources can solve this payroll issue. “That way, everyone from judge on down can have equal time off for time worked,” said Clerk Strigwolt.
Up next: CMVI, payments, two-party hearings. Plymouth may add civil motor vehicle infraction (CMVI) cases to the docket, along with payments. This would provide another opportunity for the working public to come to court to contest citations without losing time away from work, said Judge Minehan.
“I’d be open to expanding the program to one night a week,” said Judge Minehan. “Plymouth’s Town Hall is open one night a week. Why can’t we do the same? It’s a small price to pay to make courts more accessible to the public.”
Based on Plymouth’s experience, the Lynn District Court may add two-party restraining and harassment order hearings to its extended hours’ sessions, and is also considering after-hours CMVI hearings, along with payments, filings, and inquiries.
“There are all sorts of fines, assessments and restitutions,” explained Clerk Stirgwolt. “Payments need to be in the court by 9:00 a.m. on the date they’re due. In some situations, if you make that payment before that 9:00 a.m. deadline you don’t have to come to court. Since we accept payments as part of our extended hours’ services it would be a plus for working people,” she said.