Staff shortages, state hiring and salary freezes and a sharply increasing caseload have left Fairfax's General District Court teetering on the edge of collapse.
"If you can, picture the legs of a table starting to give way because there is too much on the table," said Deputy Clerk Dan Weintraub. "It's not giving way because we are holding it up the best we can."
Last week, Nancy L. Lake, the clerk of the General District Court, announced that all the court's clerical offices will close counters to the public at 3 p.m., an hour early, effective Nov. 1. She said she does not know how long the offices will close early but said it is necessary to allow clerks to catch up on work.
Fairfax's court has been the hardest hit by staff shortages and heavy caseload in Northern Virginia, although court clerks in other counties say they are dealing with the same problems.
General district courts in Virginia have jurisdiction over all civil cases in which the claim is not more than $1,000. The courts also hear misdemeanor offenses and traffic cases and conduct preliminary hearings in felony cases.
The clerks, depending on the section, are responsible for setting the docket for trial, motions and arraignments and processing paperwork on defendants. In Fairfax, Lake said, clerks each day handle as many as 300 criminal cases, up to 1,600 traffic cases and up to 400 civil cases.
She said the number of cases has increased about 20,000 over last year's 288,947.
The state, which finances the clerk positions, announced a hiring freeze in May, requiring clerks to delay filling vacancies for 10 weeks after an employee leaves. The state also froze salaries, eliminating merit pay and cost of living raises for at least two years.
The state cuts came in the face of record caseloads, clerks say, prompting a huge backlog and low morale.
Several Fairfax court employees have left because of long hours, low pay and no raises. Their average salary is less than $20,000 a year, and the state no longer pays them overtime.
Neither Arlington nor Prince William County General District Court has had the same turnover problem. Barbara Fry, a supervisor in the civil division in Prince William County, said clerks are taking home work to keep up, but the civil division is clogged with a two-week backlog. Loudoun County General District Court also is dealing with a rising caseload and not enough employees. But the problems in those courts have not reached the level of problems in Fairfax, employees say.
In Fairfax, Lake said, supervisors are working into the night, without overtime pay, to catch up and prepare the next day's court docket. "My real fear," Lake said, "is we're not going to get a docket in one day."
Some of the biggest problems are in traffic court, where defendants are coming to court on dates assigned and finding their names not on the docket or their cases missing.
Lake said the traffic office is running two to three weeks behind in recording payments sent to reinstate suspended driver's licenses. "That means some people are driving on suspended licenses," Lake said. "People feel if they send us the money right away we should be able to turn it around, and we can't."
Susan Parker, assistant supervisor in Fairfax's criminal section, said morale is low as clerks deal with the crowded counter and do the work of two or three people. Parker said people don't understand the staffing situation. "They yell, 'Isn't there anybody here that can help us? Why don't you get more people?' "
At full staff, Lake said, the court has 64.6 positions. There are now seven vacancies.
In the court's civil section, which has five vacancies, clients have come to court to find paperwork in their cases has not been sent out. People telephoning the office are not getting through. Plaintiffs who win judgments are not getting money because notices are not being sent to banks and employers to garnish salaries of people who owe debts, or they are being sent late, allowing defendants in some cases to move their money.
The situation has gotten so bad that clerks have asked lawyers needing cases processed immediately to come in and find the files themselves.
Michael Perry, a Fairfax lawyer, said lawyers in his office are pulling files "because the clerks don't have the time to do it. The caseload is so heavy. They just need more people."
Susan Sinrod, a Fairfax lawyer, said her firm has considered filing some lawsuits in Prince William County in the hope that the cases will move faster there. She said she thinks the clerks in the Fairfax court are doing their best with too few people.