At the Edgartown courthouse, access for people with handicaps is severely lacking to nonexistent.

The only wheelchair ramp into the courthouse is in disrepair. The bare wooden boards are slippery when it rains, and the ramp leads to a locked door.

The wheelchair lift on the back stairs leading to the second floor courtroom has been broken for months.

The basement level of the courthouse, where juries organize and wait to be called, and where court sessions are sometimes held, has no access at all for people who are disabled.

Lift for people needing assistance has been out of service for months. — Mark Lovewell

“It’s ridiculous,” said Martin V. Tomassian Jr., an Edgartown attorney who is president of the Dukes County Bar Association. “The people of the county are being denied access to justice, which is one of the things that should be foremost in every person’s mind who deals in the courthouse. The court personnel does everything they can short of being a sherpa and lugging somebody up the stairs, to accommodate people with handicaps. They even arraign people in the corridor. If they can find an empty room they’ll do a short trial, or even small claims, for those people who can’t get up the stairs.”

Early this month Dianne Holt went to the courthouse to observe a hearing in the district court. She said she slipped and nearly fell on the wet ramp, then found it difficult to navigate the stairs to the second floor courtroom.

“It is really a problem,” said Ms. Holt, a resident of Chilmark who fired off a letter to the Gazette following her experience. “It’s a safety issue, and I’m surprised that safety issues are not a priority at the courthouse, but they are not. This is not a new issue.”

Dukes County owns the courthouse and is responsible for maintenance and repairs. The brick courthouse dates to 1858.

The only county function in the courthouse is the Registry of Deeds. The county rents the remainder of the courthouse to the state trial court, which includes the courtroom, offices and storage. Court personnel are state employees and were reluctant to speak publicly about the problems with access for people with disabilities. Privately, they said they are frustrated and heartbroken by the problems.

In a statement emailed to the Gazette this week, a spokesman for the Massachusetts trial court said the aging courthouse presents challenges to both the trial court as the tenant and the county as the building owner.

“Both parties will continue to work together to accommodate the needs of all members of the public trying to access services at the courthouse,” said deputy public information officer Erika Gully-Santiago. “In the draft capital master plan issued by the trial court earlier this year, the plan notes that there are many historic courthouses in which the court conducts business that will require substantial renovations to bring them up to current standards. The Dukes County Courthouse is one of these facilities,” she wrote. The statement continued: “The master plan, if fully funded, will allow for significant renovations to the building that will address many of the existing accessibility issues. In the interim, the trial court will seek to ensure access to all services provided at the facility and continue to work with Dukes County to secure funding to replace the existing exterior ramp and wheelchair lift.”

County manager Martina Thornton said the county has money available for repairs in a capital improvement fund, but the funds have not been approved for use by the county advisory board, the group that oversees the county budget and is made up of one selectman from each Island town.

Ms. Thornton also said preliminary work to repair the ramp and replace the lift has begun, despite the fact that the funds have not been approved.

The county has spent $10,410 for repairs, inspections, and licensing fees for the wheelchair lift in the past three years, according to county records, but the lift is presently not functioning.

County commission chairman David Holway said the commissioners are aware of the issues.

“We’ve been discussing that at the commissioner level for almost a year now,” Mr. Holway said. “The commission is fully supportive of correcting those shortcomings. We requested the money from the county advisory board. I don’t really understand what they’re doing, but we fully support getting this done.”

But advisory board chairman Arthur Smadbeck said the funds cannot be released until the county provides a clearer accounting of how the fund has been used in the past, and how much money is now available.

“Until we know how much is in the fund, we’re not going to approve any more expenditures,” said Mr. Smadbeck, an Edgartown selectman.

The lack of air conditioning in the courtroom is another issue that has generated complaints.

In July, the Hon. J. Thomas Kirkman, presiding justice of the Edgartown district court, wrote a letter to Mr. Holway, chairman of the county commission.

“For all my years as a lawyer and a judge the community’s access to justice has been compromised because of the conditions in the courtroom during the summer months,” Judge Kirkland wrote in the letter. “Merely opening the windows is no answer because of the street noise that overrides the proceedings.”

Early this month county commissioners and the county advisory board approved spending $50,000 to install air conditioning in the courtroom, providing the capital improvement fund contains a sufficient amount of money.

Mr. Smadbeck said the ongoing issues with maintenance at the courthouse and access for people with disabilities to the courthouse have revived a discussion about turning the building over to the state.

“One of the things that we would like to have a discussion about — and we have to have this discussion, is whether or not the state should take over the courthouse,” he said. “If they are going to take over the courthouse, then maybe it’s not prudent at this point in time to spend a lot of the communities’ money fixing it up if the state’s going to take it over.”

As for the problems with handicapped access at the courthouse, Ms. Holt said she intends to mount a petition drive to appeal to Island elected officials to correct the problems.

“It is going to get done, because that’s my mission,” she said. “When I get determined I get things done. I’m not sure why people are turning the other way.”