The Fairfax County Courthouse will soon lend a helping hand to visitors intimidated by the prospect of navigating the legal system on their own.
The county’s new Self Help Resource Center will officially open at 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 5 with a kick-off event in the courthouse law library (4110 Chain Bridge Road, Room 115), the Fairfax Bar Association recently announced.
Supported by $96,000 in county funds, the center will offer free legal assistance and resources to anyone who has to deal with the court, particularly those who are representing themselves either by choice or because they’re unable to hire a lawyer.
“Access to justice for self-represented litigants is a significant issue facing the legal community today,” the Fairfax Bar Association said in a press release. “…Barriers faced by self-represented litigants include cultural and language barriers, procedural hurdles, and general difficulty navigating the court process and understanding legal terminology, from what forms to file, to where and when to appear, and what to say in court.”
The association says it began exploring the possibility of opening a self-help center after the Virginia Access to Justice Commission approved the creation of a pilot program on Dec. 9, 2021.
Created by the Virginia Supreme Court in 2013, the commission found in a 2019 report that the volume of cases where a litigant is representing themselves is high and may be increasing, reflecting general economic challenges and increased online media access.
Surveys of judges and clerks indicated that individuals representing themselves appear to often be low-income and have limited education, according to the report. Judges stated that people generally opted for that approach “because they cannot afford to hire an attorney and cannot obtain representation from legal aid.”
Among other ways to make the court system more transparent and accessible, such as the launch of a self-help website, the report recommended initiating self-help centers staffed by pro bono attorneys or qualified non-attorneys who can provide information about the legal process and court policies and procedures.
Fairfax County’s Self Help Center will be the first one to open in Virginia, according to the office of Franconia District Supervisor Rodney Lusk, who was a top advocate for the facility as chair of the Board of Supervisors’ public safety committee.
Here’s more on the new center from the bar association:
The Fairfax Bar Association in partnership with the Fairfax County Courts, Fairfax Law Library, Legal Services of Northern Virginia, Office of the Fairfax Public Defender, Office of the Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, particularly the Office of Supervisor Rodney L. Lusk, the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office, and law firms in Fairfax County collaborated in the creation of a self- help resource center located in the Law Library in the Fairfax County Courthouse Complex.
The Center will be open to the public and available for all individuals who are interacting with the judicial system as litigants, prospective litigants, witnesses, or who simply have business with the court. The Center will serve the large number of self-represented individuals, and would assist them in navigating the court process, providing legal information and forms to allow them to represent themselves in a meaningful way. The Center will serve as an alternative option for those who are unable to afford legal services and for whom pro bono help is not available. The types of assistance provided include the provision of legal information, referrals, forms, and resource materials on topics related to various court matters.
How public records should be handled will be a key issue in the race to replace retiring Fairfax County Circuit Court Clerk John Frey.
Democrat Chris Falcon and Republican Gerarda Culipher are both vying to fill the position that Frey will vacate when he retires in December. Frey, a Republican, has served as clerk of the county’s circuit court for the last 32 years. He ran for Virginia Attorney General in 2012.
Election Day is Nov. 7, but early voting starts in less than a month on Sept. 22.
The two candidates have distinctive points of view when it comes to how public records — like divorce cases, property records, and civil matters — should be made accessible.
Under Frey’s tenure, Fairfax County made records available online through its Court Public Access Network (CPAN) system, but it has a paywall, costing $150 a quarter, or $600 a year, to access.
While most jurisdictions utilize a platform run by Virginia’s Supreme Court, Fairfax County uses its own system and is the only Northern Virginia jurisdiction to charge for viewing information remotely, as permitted by Virginia code.
Records can be accessed for free in person at the Fairfax County Courthouse, and the court launched an e-filing system last year so residents and lawyers can submit documents online, though it also comes with subscription and search fees.
Currently the deputy clerk of the court for Arlington County, which offers free access to records through the Virginia platform, Falcon resides in Annandale and is a graduate of W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax.
He told FFXnow that he’s running for court clerk to bring some reforms from Arlington to his home jurisdiction.
“I’ve encountered countless people who have reached barriers along the way when trying to access justice and access the court system,” Falcon said. “Those can be barriers because of their inability to pay for counsel or because of their lack of proficiency with the English language, or even because of transportation issues or childcare issues. For the past nine years, I’ve been working for the court system over here in Arlington, and I’ve been very proud that we’ve been able to take down a lot of those barriers.”
He called it a “real shame” that Fairfax County does not provide “free, online case information” — and he intends to change that if elected.
Falcon said this lack of access particularly hurts those representing themselves in civil cases or those who may not know the process.
“A lot of those people are not able to find the necessary information that they need, like their case numbers, their hearing dates and times, because that information is currently blocked behind a paywall that the Fairfax Circuit Court clerk’s office has in place,” he said. “I don’t know that they understand actually how many people it’s hurting.”
Culipher argues there are good reasons why the county handles its records and operates in the way it does. Currently the chief deputy clerk, she’s worked in the Fairfax County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office for a decade.
She agreed with Falcon that the “default posture” of the court is to provide public, open records, but there are “notable exceptions.”
Calling the Fairfax County Circuit Court the “hearth and home” court, since it deals with life events like probate, adoption, marriage, and divorce, Culipher noted that many records are “sensitive” and deserve to be treated “thoughtfully.” Read More
Plans are officially in for the massive redevelopment of Fairfax’s judicial complex — a 48-acre swath of land that is slated for redevelopment.
The complex is currently home to Fairfax County’s circuit, general, district and juvenile courts, along with the Historic Fairfax County Courthouse, jail and volunteer organizations.
Over the next 20 years, the county plans to add nearly one million square of development to the complex — bringing the total square footage of development to 2.3 million square feet.
Five new buildings are proposed:
- Building 1 (180,000 square feet): offices for courts, storage for circuit court, police and fire
- Building 2 (180,000 square feet): offices for the county, court supportive services, childcare; early childhood education training center, retail and food service
- Building 3 (190,000 square feet): offices for the county or private use; retail and food service
- Building 4 (150,000 square feet): diversion and community re-entry; short term and long-term supportive housing
- Building 5: 300 affordable housing units and child care
The historic courthouse will also get a new entrance facing West Street.
County officials have envisioned the redevelopment for years in what’s contemplated to be a 20-year plan. Some pieces of the undertaking are currently in progress.
So far, the development team plans to begin constructing the first building to “unlock” the development potential of the remainder of the property. The building will be home to programs currently in the Historic Courthouse, the existing police annex and evidence storage, and the Burkholder building.
Once the programs move into the new building, the Burkholder and police buildings will be demolished to construct affordable housing. That move is intended to “provide some flexibility during the capital renewal of the historic courthouse,” according to the plan.
But the application emphasizes that the development plan could change.
“The applicant reserves the right to construct the new buildings in any order, dependent upon the approved funding from the Board of Supervisors,” it states. “Any and all transportation and/or site improvements required for the use and occupancy of a given building will be constructed at such time as that building is developed.”
To make way for the new features of the project, the Legato School will be relocated, and a building for police annex and evidence storage and another school administration an annex uses will be removed. Parking Garage A will also be demolished.
The master planning process for the project kicked off in 2018 following the demolition of the Massey building. The process concluded last year following a public engagement period and with the goal of more effectively delivering county services to the community.
Five open spaces are planned as part of the project: courthouse grounds, a courthouse plaza, a central green, a gateway promenade and fields near the courthouse.
The gateway promenade — the most prominent of the open spaces proposed — is inspired by the National Mall and will create 20-foot-wide paths, along with possible seating areas and temporary installations.
The apartment units would target households earning around 60% or below of the area median income, according to the application.
The current central road loop around the demolished Massey building will be replaced with a grid of streets that connects to neighboring Fairfax City’s Old Town and creates an urban-block pattern.
The proposal has not been formally accepted for review by the county.
Fairfax County is considering updating its comprehensive plan to incorporate new housing and other public facilities in the Judicial Complex, a nearly 48-acre portion land surrounded by the City of Fairfax that is slated for redevelopment.
Home to the county’s circuit, general district and juvenile courts as well as the Historic Fairfax County Courthouse, the county jail, and volunteer organizations, the complex underwent a master planning process that concluded in January 2021, kicking off implementation of a 20-year plan.
“Since the current Compressive Plan permits only existing public uses, a plan amendment would be required to accommodate the new uses proposed in the County Judicial Complex Master Plan. Future planning and zoning processes will continue to include comprehensive stakeholder engagement,” Palchik wrote in the board matter.
The master planning process first kicked off in 2018, creating a long-term roadmap and vision for the site, which Palchik noted has potential for infill development.
Several redevelopment projects are already underway at the complex.
A 170,000-square-foot building with one level of underground parking is under construction. The building will include space for 11 programs, including commonwealth’s attorney offices and police and fire evidence storage. The design will be finalized in early 2025, followed by the completion of construction in 2027.
Entitlement of the Judicial Complex is also underway. An amendment to the county’s comprehensive plan is necessary to allow for residential and other uses that are not explicitly related to public safety.
Demolition of two wings and a sally port built behind the Historic Courthouse building is scheduled to begin in the spring. Hazmat and asbestos abatement will also begin around that time, with estimated completion by spring 2024.
So far, roughly $3 million in funding has been allocated to design building one in the complex. The next phase will involve the wings set to be demolished.
Future phases call for workforce housing at the Burkholder Administrative Center site, a new diversion and community re-entry center, the removal of the staff parking garage, hinges to the public parking garage, and other public facilities.
The project is expected to cost around $223 million — a rough estimate that is being used for future Economic Development Authority financing. Total cost estimates for each phase are still being developed, according to county budgetary documents.
The complex was home to the Massey Building, a 13-story structure that was built in 1969 and served as the main seat for the county’s government.
A population boom through the 1980s pushed the county to move to its current government center campus, turning the Massey Building into a base for the police and fire and rescue departments.
After those departments moved to the Public Safety Headquarters on the government center campus in 2017, the building was demolished in spring 2020.
“Demolition of the Massey building provided the County with an opportunity to replan the Judicial Complex,” the county’s webpage for the redevelopment plan says. “The last comprehensive master plan for the site was developed in 2002 as part of the Courthouse Expansion and Renovation project. The goal of the master plan was to consider existing development needs, while keeping in mind and planning for future uses.”
So far, areas that are the focus of redevelopment include the former Massey building site, the Historic Courthouse and surface parking lots.
Palchik noted that the plan amendment will be reviewed concurrently with zoning applications once they are submitted.
One of the most prominent court trials in recent Fairfax County history is drawing to a close.
Drawing celebrities, media, and an eclectic assortment of fans, actor Johnny Depp’s defamation lawsuit against fellow actor and ex-wife Amber Heard has unfolded in sobering, sometimes bizarre detail at the Fairfax County Courthouse since April 11.
The trial culminates more than three years of legal proceedings after Depp filed a complaint in March 2019 seeking $50 million from Heard over a Washington Post op-ed where she discussed her experience with sexual violence.
Depp’s lawyers filed the lawsuit in Fairfax County, because the Post’s computer servers are located here, and Virginia’s anti-SLAPP laws — which seek to prevent people from using the courts to intimidate or silence critics — are weaker than those in California, according to Inside NoVA.
Televised live by Court TV, the case has become a filter for issues related to celebrity and fan culture, while also raising fears that domestic violence victims will be further discouraged from speaking up or seeking help, given the mockery directed at Heard in particular everywhere from TikTok to Saturday Night Live.
With closing arguments expected tomorrow (Friday), have you been following developments in the trial closely, or are you eager for an end to the hubbub?
Fairfax County residents getting a divorce or pursuing a personal injury lawsuit can now get documents filed electronically instead of trekking over to the county courthouse.
The Fairfax County Circuit Court launched a new e-filing system on Monday (May 2), a notable step for a court that requires a paid subscription for access to case information and an in-person visit to obtain documents except in a select few cases.
To develop the service, which is currently available for existing divorce, personal injury, and contract cases, the court has partnered with the Texas-based company File & Serve Express (FSX), which says it manages more than 80 million documents and works in 1,300 courts across 20 states and D.C.
“The Pandemic has changed the practice of law, with more remote-work and ‘virtual practice’ in the legal industry,” Circuit Court Deputy Clerk Gerarda Culipher said in a news release. “Offering eFiling to our customers improves their access to justice, saves them costs and trips to the courthouse, thus making our court system easier to navigate in a digital age.”
The service isn’t free, as FSX charges a “modest” subscription fee as well as a search fee for subscribers who want to look at non-sealed documents for cases where they’re not a party.
According to the release, the court has been piloting the e-filing system with “several” law firms, and the feedback so far has indicated that it’s easy to use, Circuit Court Clerk John Frey said.
Chief Judge Penney Azcarate issued an order on April 26 permitting the clerk’s office to implement e-filing. The order indicates that electronic filing will ultimately be available for documents in all civil and criminal cases.
The court, which handles over 30,000 criminal and civil cases a year, is introducing e-filing in phases to ensure the system can handle the volume and complexity of cases, Frey said. The divorce, contract, and personal injury cases in this first phase make up “the bulk of litigation,” according to the court.
The court says other civil cases will be added this summer, but it’ll be “a while” before the service expands to criminal cases, Chief Deputy Clerk Suzanne Lubkeman told FFXnow.
“We are looking forward to offering this service to everyone, as Phase 1 successfully launches, and we move on to expanding to all types of cases,” Frey said.
While the e-filing service is primarily relevant to lawyers, FSX has public access accounts that provide “real-time access to publicly-available court documents” across the country, according to the registration form.
The Circuit Court Clerk’s Office did not immediately return a request for comment seeking to clarify whether that will allow access to electronically filed documents in Fairfax County cases.
West Potomac Soccer Coaches Fired After Hazing — “In a message to West Potomac High School soccer families, Principal Tanganyika Millard said that after an April 21 practice, a ‘parent reported a student was injured after being singled out to run through a ‘gauntlet/tunnel.” Head coach Ahmad Sasso and two other coaches were fired after the incident.” [WTOP]
Dead Firefighter Escorted to Funeral Home — “#FCFRD members gathered to salute Captain Kimberly Schoppa during her dignified transfer. Units from her last assignment, Fire Station 27, West Springfield, carried her to the funeral home. Thank you to Fairfax County Police Department for the escort.” [Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department/Facebook]
FCPS Alum Goes to Space — NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, a graduate of Robinson Secondary School, is part of a four-person crew that was scheduled to blast off to the International Space Station this morning (Wednesday) for SpaceX’s next mission. Lindgren was one of 18 astronauts selected by NASA in 2020 for its Artemis Team, an initiative to get humans back to the moon. [Florida Today]
Alpacas Make Fairfax County Courthouse Appearance — “By the time the alpacas arrive outside the Fairfax County Courthouse, it’s not really that surprising…The scene outside the Depp-Heard trial, entering its third week on Monday, has transformed the Fairfax County court complex from a place where Northern Virginia residents contest parking tickets to the stage for one of the biggest celebrity court cases in recent memory.” [The Washington Post]
TJ Tops National School Rankings — “Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County was ranked No. 1 in the nation, according to a new national ranking by U.S. News and World Report. This year’s list of best high schools evaluated more than 17,800 schools nationwide, including 322 in Virginia.” [Patch]
Vienna Students Write Cards for Ukrainian Refugees — “Students at Freedom Hill Elementary School in Vienna wrote stacks of cards to Ukrainian refugees for their principal to deliver on his spring break trip to Germany. Principal Nicholas Zapadka…decided to travel to Cologne in early April to help Ukrainian refugees who had arrived at a Red Cross refugee camp in Germany.” [Patch]
Mantua Home with Squatter Sold — “The home went off the market on April 15 for $805,000. It was built in 1964 and was last sold in 1997 for $319,000. The owner’s name was withheld by request on the Fairfax County auditor’s site. The new buyer’s name also was not listed.” [WUSA9]
It’s Wednesday — Partly cloudy throughout the day. High of 55 and low of 41. Sunrise at 6:17 am and sunset at 7:59 pm. [Weather.gov]
(Updated at 9 a.m.) County Board Chair Tests Positive for Covid — Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay announced last night (Monday) that he has tested positive for COVID-19. He reported experiencing “minor symptoms which are uncomfortable but manageable” and is currently working from home and quarantining. [Jeff McKay/Twitter]
Johnny Depp Fans Wait at Courthouse — “Fans who stood outside the main entrance of the Fairfax County Courthouse with the hopes of glimpsing actor Johnny Depp as he appeared for the first day of his defamation trial were disappointed. The ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ star skipped the crowds and entered the courthouse through another door.” [Patch]
Sen. Mark Warner Visits for Affordable Housing Talk — “Every community needs access to affordable housing. Glad to deliver funding to Fairfax County today to create up to 250 affordable housing units and talk to local leaders about how we can further support their initiatives at a federal level.” [Mark Warner/Twitter]
Trees Cut Down for Mount Vernon Bicycle Trail Project — “Construction to improve and link the Mount Vernon Bike Trail along the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway is in its early stages and to clear the way, a significant number of trees have been cut down along the road. According to the project team, there is no plan to replant additional trees when the project is completed, a county spokesperson said.” [The Connection]
Tysons Real Estate Leaders Explore Nats Sale — The Lerner family, which is behind the Tysons II development master plan, has hired an investment bank to explore potential investment partners for the Washington Nationals, The Washington Post reported. Mark Lerner, the baseball club’s managing principal owner, called the move “exploratory” with “no set timetable or expectation of a specific outcome.” [Patch]
County Unemployment Rate Declines — “Inflation may be eating away at their earnings, but a larger share of Fairfax County residents had jobs in February than a month before, according to new federal data…The county’s unemployment rate for the shortest month of the year stood at 2.5 percent, down from 2.9 percent a month before.” [Sun Gazette]
Local LGBTQ+ Advocates Worried About New Law — “Under a new law, Virginia school districts must notify parents whenever instructional materials include sexually explicit content and must provide parents alternative, non-explicit materials if requested…FCPS Pride said the bill ‘creates an adversarial relationship between teachers and parents or guardians.'” [The Washington Post]
Public Safety Workers Honored in Reston — “Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce officials on March 31 honored police, fire-and-rescue and Sheriff’s Office employees for their outstanding acts of public protection. More than 600 people attended the 44th annual Fairfax County Valor Awards, held at the Hyatt Regency Reston.” [Sun Gazette/Inside NoVA]
Herndon Plans Town-Wide Clean-Up — “The annual spring clean-up, an opportunity for residents to place large or bulky items curbside for pickup, takes place April 27-29. Pickup is on your trash day only.” [Town of Herndon]
It’s Tuesday — Partly cloudy throughout the day. High of 72 and low of 53. Sunrise at 6:37 am and sunset at 7:44 pm. [Weather.gov]
Reminder: Old Metro Cards Stop Working Today — “SmarTrip cards purchased before 2012 are no longer compatible with new, faster, modern faregates already installed in many stations. In an announcement more than 10 months ago, Metro advised customers that the old cards would need to be replaced as stations are equipped with new faregates.” [WMATA]
County Circuit Court Ends Mask Requirement — Fairfax County Circuit Court Chief Judge Penny Azcarate announced yesterday (Monday) that masks will be optional to enter the Courthouse effective immediately in accordance with the county’s new policy. Rules in courtrooms “are at the discretion of the presiding judge.” [Circuit Court]
Masks Now Optional on School Buses — Fairfax County Public Schools confirmed that its shift to a mask-optional policy starting today (Tuesday) includes school buses and vans. FCPS will also stop contact tracing for individual COVID-19 cases, but a livestreaming option is still available to students who have to isolate. [FCPS]
No Injuries Reported in Wolf Trap House Fire — Firefighters responded to a house fire in the 1500 block of Snughill Court around 8:45 p.m. on Saturday (Feb. 26). Investigators determined that the fire was started by improperly discarded ashes from a fire pit. It displaced five people and caused approximately $187,500 in damages. [FCFRD]
Fear of Reston Golf Course Development Persists — “A recent proposal to establish a pilot program to remove invasive plant species around Reston National Golf Course is seen by some as a first step to garner support for redeveloping the land.” [Patch]
Historic McLean Estate to Be Conserved — “An 8-acre Civil War-era McLean property known as Elmwood recently became the 129th conservation easement for the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust (NVCT)…Elmwood most recently was the home of the late television journalist Roger Mudd, whose family lived in the house for nearly half a century.” [Sun Gazette]
Reston Blogger Digs into History of Maryland Pizza Hut — Addison Del Mastro, who writes a Substack newsletter about urbanism and land use, noticed some unusual architectural features on a Pizza Hut in Landover. His investigation found that it started life in the 1970s as a franchise in a now-defunct chain called English’s Chick’n Steak House. [The Washington Post]
It’s Tuesday — Today will be mostly cloudy, then gradually become sunny, with a high near 58 and a low around 40. Sunrise will be at 6:39 a.m. and sunset at 6:01 p.m. [weather.gov]