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Friday, July 23, 2010

Court limits hours

CONCORD – Facing a critical staff shortage and case backlog, the Merrimack County Superior Court in Concord will be closed for three hours each day starting next month.

The closures, from 1-4 p.m. daily beginning Aug. 2, will provide staff with uninterrupted time to catch up on processing cases and court orders. The telephone system will be monitored so emergency cases can still be acted on and there will be a drop box at the court, according to Laura Kiernan, the state court system’s spokesperson.

Several courts in the state, including Nashua District Court, have implemented similar measures to catch up on or keep current on case loads in the face of budget cuts and staff shortages, Kiernan said.

The Concord court is missing one-third of the staff it normally has, and as of June 30, nearly 500 of its cases include pieces of mail that haven’t been added to the court record – some that date back to March, according to court clerk William McGraw.

Another 150 trial and hearing notices haven’t been sent out, more than 350 files include orders that have not been issued, some more than 6 weeks old, and more than 30 files need to be closed, McGraw said.

Superior Court Chief Justice Robert Lynn said the schedule will be reviewed monthly to determine when normal hours of operation can be continued. Court monitors may be assigned to help with case processing when they are not in the court room and employee “swat teams” from other courts may be assembled to help the court, he said.

“This situation not only inhibits court operation but severely damages staff morale,” McGraw said.

Currently, three out of nine clerical positions at Merrimack County Superior Court are vacant and there are 2,400 criminal and civil cases pending there.

The court system has been ordered to cut $3.1 million from its operating budget in the next two years.

Last week, it was announced that the superior courts will hold one-third fewer jury trials through June 2011 to save about $280,000. The system is already maintaining 68 full-time nonjudicial vacancies to save money, Kiernan said.

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashuatelegraph.com.