Fairfax County Juvenile Court Clerk Sued Over Unpaid Legal Vouchers
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Lawyers who agree to be appointed to cases in Fairfax County's Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court know they are delving into grueling and emotional work -- representing abused or neglected children, their abusive parents or children in tug-of-war custody cases -- for little money.
And in Fairfax, they aren't even getting paid that.
Last week, one Fairfax law firm took the unusual step of filing suit against Fairfax Juvenile Court clerk Jennifer Flanagan, claiming that she has refused to process more than $73,000 worth of vouchers for their work in dozens of cases, some more than two years old. Numerous other lawyers said they had the same problem and couldn't get any answers out of Flanagan, and they applauded their colleagues, Michael S. Arif and Matthew W. Greene, for taking the matter to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Flanagan said Tuesday that she had never been contacted by Arif or Greene, despite their sworn claim that she had failed to "respond to repeated requests for information." She said that she was investigating the lawyers' claims and that "I can assure you that we're submitting the vouchers as we're receiving them and following the process."
Greene said he reluctantly filed the suit asking the Supreme Court to order Flanagan to process their vouchers, and that "virtually every attorney who's on the list [for court appointment] in Fairfax juvenile court has not been paid in months and months." For some lawyers who volunteer to represent the poor, it is little more than a donation of their time. But for others, Greene said, the money is needed to pay the rent.
"And it's going to happen," Greene said, "that some attorneys are going to cut corners because they can't pay the rent. And somewhere down the line, a child is going to pay the price for it."
Responding to Flanagan's assertion that neither he nor Arif had contacted her, Greene said he discussed the matter with her directly in July 2008. "She directed me to send a fax to one of the deputy clerks and assured me it would be investigated promptly and thoroughly," Greene said.
He provided a copy of his fax to Flanagan's deputy, and said only eight of the 24 vouchers were paid.
Anne W. Norloff, a bilingual attorney who accepts court appointments in five different courts in Northern Virginia, said she now refuses to work in Fairfax and is owed more than $10,000.
"The system's broken in Fairfax," Norloff said. "I've done juvenile law for 20 years and Fairfax is the only court that acts like this. Most of us take these cases because we want to help the indigent -- we certainly don't do it to get rich. The caseload is overwhelming and then they don't pay what little we're owed. Fairfax juvenile court has driven away all its good attorneys."
Flanagan has 14 days to file a response to the suit, and then a panel of state Supreme Court justices will issue a ruling without hearing oral argument, court spokeswoman Katya Herndon said. Flanagan said she would be represented by the state attorney general's office, but hoped to settle the case before facing an order from the state's highest court.
Virginia's court-appointed lawyers, used when criminal and juvenile court parties can't afford an attorney, are among the lowest-paid in the country, many studies have shown. For representing an abused child or a criminal misdemeanor defendant, a lawyer is paid a maximum of $120, with the possibility of another $120 under extenuating circumstances. For criminal felonies, the maximum is $650. When the court appoints a lawyer to serve as a guardian ad litem to a child or a parent, often in cases determining who will get custody of the child, attorneys are paid $55 an hour out of court and $75 an hour in court, with no cap, subject to review and approval by the judge in the case.