Coronavirus: The Latest EU Court Closures And Restrictions

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Law360 (March 16, 2020, 10:03 PM EDT) -- UPDATED May 29, 2020, 4:23 PM GMT | As courts across the region take measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, some are restricting access and altering their procedures. Here is a roundup of changes.

This list will be updated continually with new information.

Click to view interactive version


EUROPEAN UNION


European Court of Justice & General Court of the European Union
Both the ECJ and the General Court have begun opening up for hearings again, with a handful of ECJ cases scheduled for hearings in the coming weeks and more General Court hearings joining the listings in June.

In some cases where hearings have been suspended, the ECJ has sent written questions to the parties instead. The court will notify parties in other cases when they are relisted for hearings. The court also cautioned that it may also send written questions instead of holding hearings in some cases after May 25 because of "logistical difficulties" from the pandemic. 

The courts will impose "the strictest sanity measures" following rules set by the Luxembourg government. Parties attending court will have to keep an adequate physical distance from one another and wear masks outside of the hearing rooms. The courts have also asked representatives to bring their own gowns.

The ECJ initially delayed a wave of hearings and is now prioritizing urgent, expedited and interim proceedings. The deadlines to file appeals continue to run as usual, but deadlines in ongoing, non-urgent proceedings have all been extended by a month.

The deadlines for General Court cases continue to run, but the court said that deadlines will be adjusted given the difficulties created by the crisis. The court has asked parties that may plan to seek extensions to do so "in good time."

European Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights said it will continue its essential activities "in principle" and focus on priority cases. The court has switched to teleworking and its building is not open to the public.

It has also cancelled all hearings scheduled for March and April and suspended the six-month deadline to file applications for one month starting March 16. Other deadlines in pending cases will also be suspended for one month.

The court has also put off a number of procedures that can't be handled remotely and aren't critical until the end of the lock-down in France. That includes delays on notifying applicants on decisions on inadmissibility made by a single judge and notifying countries named in non-urgent cases, among other things.

European Union Intellectual Property Office
The European Union Intellectual Property Office has automatically extended all time limits for procedural deadlines through May 17 until May 18. The extension covers deadlines for any proceedings before the office, including the boards of appeal.

NATIONAL COURTS


United Kingdom
» England and Wales
The judiciary has radically reduced the number of courthouses open to the public handle urgent matters that need to be held in person, cutting operations down to 159 "priority" buildings. Another 115 buildings have staff and judges working but are closed to the public, while 67 courts are currently closed during the pandemic.

The courts are reaching out to the parties with new hearing plans for those proceedings scheduled for courts and tribunals that are currently closed, starting with the cases due to be heard first.

The country's Supreme Court is now conducting cases entirely by video link for the first time in its history after closing its building to the public.

Some jury trials have resumed in four crown courts and three more are slated to join the list this week. New jury trials can start by following new arrangements designed to keep jurors, lawyers and the press safely separated. 

The courts have also launched a new video platform for criminal courts to allow all parties to join hearings remotely over secure connections, which is now online in 60 magistrates courts and 48 crown courts. The courts are not, however, using the technology for jury trials.

Crown Courts are dealing with a range of work, much of which is being done remotely. This includes sentencing hearings and all urgent applications including applications for bail and applications to extend custody time limits. Pre-trial preparation hearings and further case management hearings are also taking place.

Magistrates courts, which deal with extradition matters and initial proceedings in criminal cases, are hearing all custody cases brought by the Crown Prosecution Service, extradition arrest warrants, terrorism applications, civil applications dealing with public health law and urgent police matters like domestic violence protection orders and search warrants. Magistrates courts are also planning to begin handling traffic prosecution cases again that can be handled remotely.

Any cases that can be are being heard remotely throughout the judiciary. The courts are beginning to use Cloud Video Platform as well as Skype and other services. 

As of April 1, the Court of Appeal is only conducting urgent civil and criminal work and is handling all civil matters remotely. The Royal Courts of Justice said urgent work is limited to applications that require a decision within a week that are "essential in the interests of justice." The appeals court will handle non-urgent applications as it becomes possible to do so. All notices of appeal will currently be accepted but can be rejected later.

For criminal matters, cases are considered urgent based on the type of appeal or any special issues like expected release dates or vulnerable defendants. The criminal division is also hearing cases remotely whenever possible. Urgent applications should only be filed by email during business hours.

As the prime minister has called for citizens to avoid socializing and closed the schools, lawyers and court staff deemed essential to operating the justice system have been defined as key workers whose children will be allowed to attend school during general closures because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

According to the latest guidance, legal advocates who must appear before a court whether remotely or in person count as key workers. That includes prosecutors. The list also includes other legal professionals needed to help keep the judiciary running, including barristers, solicitors paralegals and others handling current hearings; solicitors helping to execute wills; lawyers advising institutionalized individuals or others in detention.

Other legal professionals might occasionally be classified as key workers if they have to handle urgent matters involving public safety or child protection issues, according to the guidance posted by the Bar Counsel

The judiciary issued new safety guidance March 29 calling for people to keep a 2 meter gap between them when lining up to enter the building and asking any visitors to confirm they do not have any coronavirus symptoms. Within the courtrooms, visitors will be asked to space out. The courts will all have daytime cleaning, in addition to overnight cleaning, by April 1.

The employment tribunals for England, Wales and Scotland will automatically change all live hearings scheduled from March 23 on to begin as a telephone hearing to discuss how to proceed. Parties should assume that for any hearings scheduled to run for more than one day, the later days will be cancelled.

The First Tier Tax Tribunal's administrative center based in Birmingham has reduced its operations, with a core group rotating through split shifts to maintain social distance and all staff who can work remotely are doing so. The staff is working with HMRC to send documents electronically, with the judiciary and the parties to arrange remote hearings and register new appeals.

All standard or complex cases have been stayed for 70 days until June 30 and deadlines in those proceedings have also been extended accordingly. Face to face hearings have been cancelled through the end of August.

Cases in the Property Chamber of the First Tier Tribunal have been stayed as the court looks for how to handle them remotely. Cases in the tribunal's General Regulatory Tribunal are being heard remotely, except for cases involving the U.K.'s data protection watchdog, which have been stayed.

The judiciary has also distributed pilot practice direction for its tribunals. The direction notes that regular decisions about the composition of judges or experts for a tribunal panel would remain in place, but if a salaried judge decides maintaining standard arrangements would lead to "unacceptable" delays, cases can be heard by a single judge or a smaller panel.

The Royal Courts of Justice's Fees Office has been closed to the public because of the high number of staff absences due to the pandemic. Instead, people should use dedicated email accounts for the different courts.

The courts have also halted all ongoing actions for housing possession, part of broader new government measures intended to protect renters from eviction amid the crisis.

» Northern Ireland
The courts in Northern Ireland have consolidated all matters in the Royal Courts of Justice, Laganside Courts, Lisborn, Dungannon and Londonderry.

The courts have only been hearing urgent matters using remote technology ranging from telephone and live link hearings to Sightlink, Zoom or BTMeetme.

The lord chief justice has launched a plan to slowly resume regular court operations. Initially the courts are conducting an administrative review of their current cases in order to increase how much of the court's non-contentious operations can resume without running afoul of public health restrictions. The courts expect that cases will proceed during that initial phase but at a slower rate, with some hearings going forward if they don't require a lot of witnesses or experts.

During that time, the courts said parties and lawyers should only attend court if specifically told to do so.

At the end of the month, the courts plan to begin looking at the possibility of a broader reopening, including hearings that require witnesses and experts, including frontline medical staff and others, as well as jury trials.

» Scotland
The Scottish courts plan to begin reopening their public buildings June 1, gradually bringing back a few staff and judiciary members. The buildings will still remain closed to everyone else for the next few weeks.

The Scottish judiciary outlined plans to resume jury trials in Edinburgh and Glasgow in July to allow for adequate distancing with 15-person juries. In Glasgow, the courts are looking at using three courts and seating the jury in the public gallery. In Edinburgh, the judiciary is planning to use two courts and having the jury watch the proceedings remotely from a separate courtroom.

The Scottish courts have begun holding online hearings as part of a virtual court pilot program that could become a permanent part of the court's operations, the courts service said. The Court of Session, the Inner House and the Outer House have begun listing cases for online hearings.

The courts also plan to allow other matters in commercial courts, insolvency cases and some other kinds of litigation to begin proceeding remotely if there's a good reason to avoid delays and most of the evidence can be provided digitally.

Representatives in most criminal custody cases are now able to take part remotely. Anyone in custody who has or is suspected to have the coronavirus are having their cases handled by videolink and the courts plan to expand that to all defendants. Only those involved in cases and journalists can currently attend criminal hearings in person with social distancing measures.

Ireland
The Irish courts have laid out gradual plans for how to reopen some courts. The courts will continue to hold virtual hearings while the judiciary adjusts the layout of the courtrooms to allow for participants to maintain adequate distance from one another. The courts also plan to stagger listing times.

The chief justice has warned that the measures may remain in place through much of 2021 and cautioned that remote hearings will likely continue to be crucial as many courtrooms and courthouses will not be able to handle the same volume of proceedings as before the pandemic.

The Irish Supreme Court and Court of Appeal both adjourned appeals that were scheduled for hearings until April 3. The Irish Court of Appeal is hearing both civil and criminal appeals remotely during the upcoming Easter term starting April 20. The Supreme Court said that it intends to handle "much" of its work remotely, issuing new practice guidance on how to handle filing documents and deal with technical issues. 

The High Court will limit its hearings to urgent matters including injunctions and habeas corpus. Extradition and bail hearings will be conducted using video links.

All written judgments in the Irish courts will be delivered electronically to the parties and posted online as soon as possible.

The Irish courts have said defendants on bail do not need to attend criminal hearings at the district and circuit courts and will have their cases remanded to a future date. Any defendants in custody will appear by videolink. For the Central Court and Special Criminal Court, defendants on bail should speak with their attorneys about whether they need to attend. The courts have asked members of the public not to attend hearings unless they are participants and media outlets have been asked to send as few representatives as possible to cover hearings.

Public offices at the courts are open by appointment only.

France
France has announced that only urgent court matters would go forward. The Ministry of Justice said trials could be postponed within reason and the limits on detaining individuals before trial.

France's highest court has suspended most non-essential proceedings but has a continuity plan to ensure that urgent criminal matters including extraditions are handled.

Italy
Italy's Supreme Court had suspended its activities under the broader government coronavirus crackdown, but is now gradually preparing to resume operations in mid-April with a focus on urgent matters involving prisoners. The judiciary had already pushed for the use of videoconferencing  hearings amid the crisis and the Supreme Court has begun issuing decisions remotely for the first time. The court has adjusted its rules to allow for most parties to participate remotely.

Germany
Germany's Federal Administrative Court has resumed operations with a number of precautions. Only one or two sessions will take place each day in courtrooms big enough to allow participants to maintain enough distance from one another. The court has had every other row of chairs removed from the public gallery and only every third chair of those that remain can be occupied. The court is also collecting the contact details of anyone attending hearings in a voluntary process to allow for contact tracing.

The Federal Court of Justice is currently closed to visitors but court hearings remain unaffected. The court has noted that access to space in the building is somewhat limited by social distancing precautions and that some visits may require advance registration. As a result the court asked visitors to consider whether attending proceedings is necessary.

Finland
The Finnish justice ministry has said that some cases may be delayed and warned that it may take longer than usual to process matters in the courts.

Finland's Supreme Court said it would be able to continue with its core business as many matters can be resolved in writing, but warned that non-urgent matters may face delays. The court will not hold any oral hearings that require the parties and witnesses to be physically present unless absolutely necessary.

Denmark
The Danish courts have begun gradually reopening. The initial focus will be on criminal and civil cases like family law disputes. Other matters will return to physical hearings as it becomes possible to do. The judiciary has said it was considering working outside of regular business hours and using some outside premises to address space shortages created by the need to hear more cases in larger courtrooms that allow for more social distancing.

The courts have been set up to allow physical distance between participants and installed physical shields in some cases where distancing is not possible.

Generally, the courts have instructed parties, witnesses magistrates and judges to attend court if they have been summoned or scheduled unless they are sick or have potential COVID-19 symptoms. The courts have advised anyone in at-risk groups required to attend court to reach out to assess whether their duties should be suspended.

Portugal
The Portuguese Supreme Court has resumed handling all cases after initially limiting hearings to urgent matters only. But most employees will continue to work remotely and hearings and judgment hand-downs will take place remotely.

Norway
The Norwegian Supreme Court has decided to hear all cases remotely until further notice.

Iceland
Iceland said it would restrict proceedings at courts throughout the judiciary, limiting hearings in most courts to urgent matters like child protection and criminal matters involving individuals under arrest or hearings where the parties do not need to appear in person.

Netherlands
The Dutch courts have been handling work remotely as much as possible. The courts have limited cases being held physically in the courts if the parties need to attend, with the priority going to criminal and family court matters.

Litigation that can be handled remotely is being heard through Skype sessions. The courts are closed for public attendance and up to three journalists are allowed to attend hearings, though exceptions can be made if more can be safely accommodated.

Austria
The Austrian Supreme Court has restricted access, asking parties to make requests by telephone or email whenever possible. Public access will be restricted to a minimum.

Czech Republic
The Czech Supreme Court has fully reopened to the public and resumed normal hearing schedules but urged parties to continue to use electronic and telephone as much as possible.

Croatia
The Croatian courts have begun preparations for when the country eventually loosens restrictions.

The courts have been asked to assess which courtrooms are big enough to accommodate hearings with adequate distance between participants and how to schedule those courtrooms by day and judge in order to hold as many hearings as possible. The courts have also been asked to check whether multiple rooms within the courthouses can be connected using video-link to include more participants while still maintaining social distancing.

The Supreme Court has returned to normal operations with employees in the courthouse with the exception of high-risk individuals.

Slovenia
The Slovenian judiciary said that submissions should be made by mail or electronically and people should avoid coming to the court except in urgent cases. For anyone allowed to attend court, people should arrive earlier to take preventative measures, disinfect their hands, and notify the court if they have signs of infection or are in quarantine.

Hungary
The Hungarian courts have adjourned most proceedings except for urgent matters or hearings that can be conducted remotely. The judiciary urged parties to opt for electronic submissions, but said they could submit paper filings by mail or in boxes at the entrances of the courthouses. For any urgent matters that must be held in person, everyone must be at least two meters apart.

Greece
The Greek courts have extended the limitation period for claims from April 11 to April 27 to take account of the temporary suspension of court operations. The courts are hearing matters remotely where possible.

Bulgaria
Bulgaria's Supreme Judicial Council announced a range of measures to limit the risks from public access to the buildings, including having separate entrances for staff and litigants, one-way traffic in the building when possible, limiting the number of cases whose participants can wait inside at any time and scheduling fewer cases with longer breaks between them, among other measures.

Slovakia
The Slovakian Supreme Court has ordered staff to work from home, saying employees could only enter the building in an urgent situation if asked by a particular judge or lawmakers.

Slovakia's constitutional court has also limited public access until further notice. Its office in Bratislava is only open from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Wednesday. Filings in person can also be made from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the mailroom of the Košice location.

Latvia
Latvia's Supreme Court said it would not allow visitors until June 9. Parties can file documents by email, mail, electronic submission or in a mailbox in the court's lobby.

The Latvian courts will continue to operate but will limit hearings to urgent cases, including those that involve defendants in prison.

Estonia
The Estonian Supreme Court said that its communications may be delayed due to both the virus and its relocation. The court encouraged remote working and said anyone with symptoms or who has been exposed to the virus would not be allowed to enter the building. There is no broader public access to the court during the public health emergency.

The country's council in charge of courts administration likewise encouraged courts to handle matters in writing wherever possible. Matters that require an oral hearing will either be postponed or heard remotely. Only exceptional matters will be heard in person in the biggest available courtroom to allow participants to keep their distance. The council said the courtrooms would be cleaned afterward.

Only those involved in legal proceedings or the administration of justice will be allowed into the courthouses.

Spain
The Spanish judiciary has extended its suspension of all non-essential proceedings until May 24, which also continues the suspension of procedural deadlines.

The judiciary is also looking at proposals on how to deal with workflow after the broader state of emergency is eased, which includes reducing the courts' workload and broadly increasing the use of technology for everything from filings to payments to court appearances. 

The Spanish judiciary has published guidance on sanitary measures that should be adopted as the courts look at how to resume activity. The different courts have also been asked to begin preparing plans on how to restart operations.

The judiciary has also warned lawyers that it is up to judges to decide whether parties can appear by videoconference, warning Malaga's bar association over its announcement that it would suspend face-to-face proceedings.

Liechtenstein 
Liechtenstein's courts said they would continue operations to allow parties to exercise their rights and enforce claims, but took measures to cut down on risks. The courts said the only people who should be at the courthouse are those whose presence is essential, encouraged file access to be granted by phone and email whenever possible. All employees have been instructed to work from home unless it is absolutely necessary to appear in person.

Switzerland
Switzerland's Federal Criminal Court has suspended all public visits and hearings are closed to the public. Journalists who regularly cover the court will be alerted to the results.

Switzerland's Federal Tribunal detailed plans to gradually return to normal beginning May 11. The court has asked staff to continue to work remotely as much as possible and only come into the courthouse when necessary. Anyone attending hearings has been asked to comply with hygiene rules from the Swiss authorities.

Lithuania
Lithuania's courts will only hear urgent cases such as those involving arrests or child safety matters during the quarantine period, all other matters have been cancelled. For those matters that must be heard in person, parties must be as far apart as possible and the courtrooms will be continually ventilated and disinfected.

Malta
Malta's justice ministry said local courts would be closed temporarily until further notice. That has also led to the suspension of the work of public notaries.

Cyprus
The Cyprus Supreme Court is trying to resume hearing some appeals after initially cancelling all hearings through the end of April with the exception of urgent matters. The court has asked parties to fill out a form and will begin scheduling hearings but if the parties do not appear, the court will only proceed if everyone has signed off on paper. The court also said that if the appellants do not appear, it will not consider the appeal to have been abandoned.

Romania
Romania's courts have published guidance for anyone attending court, including urging parties to use electronic filing, warning attendees that they will have their temperature taking and won't be allowed to attend if they're running a fever. The High Court is also requiring attendees to wear masks and have allowed individuals to wear any other necessary protective equipment.

--Additional reporting by Richard Crump, Paige Long, Joanne Faulkner and Christopher Crosby.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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