Coronavirus: The Latest EU Court Closures And Restrictions

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Law360 (March 16, 2020, 10:03 PM EDT) -- UPDATED October 26, 2020, 11:47 AM 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 Court of Justice & General Court of the European Union
Both the ECJ and the General Court have opened up for hearings again. The courts can issue a letter certifying that a hearing is going on for any representatives needing it to come to the Luxembourg courthouse given current travel restrictions, but under certain conditions parties who cannot travel may attend by videoconference.

The courts now require individuals to have their temperature checked before entering the courthouse and wear masks while moving around the building.

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. All tables, microphones and headsets are being disinfected between hearings and lawyers have been asked to bring their own gowns.

As of Sept. 1, procedural time limits for both courts have returned to normal but parties who require an extension can request one but must do so early enough to give the court "good time" to review it.

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.

The court is now hearing three cases remotely in June after deciding to hold all oral arguments by video conference for the time being. The court will make recordings of the hearings available to the public on its website the day after the hearing takes place.

It 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.

European Union Intellectual Property Office
The European Union Intellectual Property Office automatically extended all time limits for procedural deadlines through May 18. The extension covers deadlines for any proceedings before the office, including the boards of appeal. The office has put out guidance on missed deadlines and seeking case-by-case extensions where possible in different proceedings.

The EUIPO has also updated its electronic communications offices, adding an option for users without access to fax machines as part of its efforts to eliminate the need for faxing.

European Free Trade Association Court
The court has begun hearing cases remotely during the pandemic. Its extended three-month deadline for written observations to be submitted to the court will return to two months for all cases as of Aug. 1


United Kingdom
» England and Wales
The majority of courthouses have reopened after the judiciary initially radically reduced the number of courthouses open to the public handle urgent matters. Anyone attending court is required to wear a face mask inside the building.

The courts do not plan to change upcoming hearings in light of recent increased restrictions in London and elsewhere in the country. Codes that allow court visitors to check in under the government test-and-trace app are being posted in the courts and users are being encouraged to scan when they attend court.

Now the government has moved to set up new temporary courts to tackle backlogs due to court closures during lockdown and limited capacity created by the current arrangements to allow for physical distancing for trials. There are now 15 locations, dubbed Nightingale courts, hearing a range of civil, family, tribunal and criminal matters that don't require the defendant to be kept in custody.

Several crown courts are also testing out extended operating hours in a bid to help reduce backlogs that built up during lockdown.

Manchester's crown court has fully reopened after being shut down in mid-August after three people tested positive for the coronavirus.

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.

Jury trials have been allowed to resume at 77 crown courts and four Nightingale courts as well as two other court locations. New jury trials can start by following new arrangements designed to keep jurors, lawyers and the press safely separated. The courts are in the process of installing plexiglass barriers in hundreds of courtrooms and jury rooms to facilitate the process.

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 magistrates courts and crown courts as well as being extended to other operations. The courts are not, however, using the technology for jury trials.

Magistrates courts, which deal with extradition matters and initial proceedings in criminal cases, have resumed hearing most types of cases again, nearly returning to pre-lockdown levels.

The Court of Appeal continues to prioritize urgent cases but has resumed handling routine operations as well. Most civil hearings continue to be handled remotely, though some cases are being heard in person with social distancing.

Housing possession cases have been allowed to resume after a six-month stoppage.

» Northern Ireland
The courts in Northern Ireland have begun reopening courthouses after initially consolidating all matters in a handful of venues.

The courts have only been hearing matters using remote technology and have continued to tell parties and lawyers that they should only attend court if specifically told to do so.

Jury trials have started up again at Laganside Courts in Belfast starting Aug. 19 and the judiciary is working on plans for other crown courts to resume operations in September. 

» Scotland
Scotland's courts have reopened and the tribunals will begin resuming soon, but the head of the courts system has warned that with distancing requirements the courts' physical capacity may be just 30% of their previous levels. That is expected to lead to significantly longer timelines for cases, especially criminal trials.

Visitors must now wear face coverings in public areas of all court and tribunal buildings.

The High Court has resumed holding trials using new procedures to protect participants. The changes involve selecting the 15 jurors and at least five substitutes remotely before the trials begin. The courts have also arranged to spread out proceedings over multiple courtrooms to separate the parties, jury and media in order to provide adequate distancing.

The courts have also begun using movie theater multiplexes to hold jury trials using video feeds in order to return to pre-pandemic levels while allowing for jurors to maintain sufficient distance from one another.

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.

Scotland is also looking at extending the use of virtual trials to handle summary criminal cases after initial efforts proved successful.

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.

But Colin Sutherland, the lord president of the Court of Session, said the new legislation would be needed to fully address the problems created by the need to maintain physical distancing at the courthouses and the backlog created by the pandemic.

The Irish courts have begun reopening 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 Irish courts have ramped up the number of cases they are hearing while making changes to protect public safety. That includes using two courtrooms for each jury trial. The judiciary plans to continue seating juries for trial despite the government's recent announcement of tighter restrictions to deal with an increase in cases.

The courts of appeal have largely switched to remote hearings, and that will continue as much as possible in to free up more space for actions that must be held in person.

The High Court expects to clear its backlog of motions by early November but warned that its resources will continue to be limited during the pandemic.

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 courts have also urged all attendees to wear a mask in the buildings including when testifying, questioning witnesses and speaking to the court unless speaking behind a protective screen or on instructions of the judge. 

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

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'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.

Italy has also announced a program to allow materials to be submitted electronically in criminal trials.

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 only available to employees 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. The court's library has reopened with limited capacity, so visitors should consider whether attending proceedings or the library is necessary.

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.

The Danish courts have begun gradually reopening. The initial focus was on criminal and civil cases like family law disputes, but the commercial courts have begun holding physical proceedings in civil cases as well. 

The Maritime and Commercial Court has now reopened for in-person proceedings, focusing on bankruptcy and restructuring cases.

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.

Portuguese courts have returned to full operations while following public health rules.

The Norwegian Supreme Court has resumed hearing cases in personwith certain restrictions, although some hearings are still being conducted remotely. Only attorneys or others with a need to attend court can enter the building, visitors cannot eat or drink within the building and must maintain physical distance from others within the court. Anyone who is quarantining, has cold symptoms or has been abroad within the previous 10 days cannot attend court.

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.

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.

The judiciary has asked the government for more clarity on its emergency coronavirus legislation, including seeking an additional exception for court hearings to the limits on restrictions on large groups of people gathering.

The criminal justice system has detailed plans to try to cut delays and reduce the backlog created by pandemic. That includes expanding the capacity of courthouses by extending opening hours, renting additional space at other locations and adding staff. The judiciary has agreed with prosecutors to resolve simple criminal cases through orders to allow the courts to focus on the most serious cases.

The Austrian Supreme Court has resumed regular service at the courthouse with the addition of social distancing requirements.

Czech Republic
The Czech Supreme Court has resumed normal hearing schedules but urged parties to continue to use electronic and telephone as much as possible. Visitors are required to wear a face covering and staff must wear masks whenever meeting with visitors.

The court has also limited the hours it is open to the public after the government tightened restrictions, but said the move would not affect the timing of public sessions.

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. Visitors must wear masks indoors.

The Slovenian judiciary has lifted special provisions put into place to address the pandemic and procedural deadlines in non-urgent cases are running again as of June 1. The courts have resumed regular operations but continue to ask visitors only to attend court if they have no signs of infection or to alert the court to possible infections if their attendance is required.

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.

The Greek courts have begun resuming activities and the country's supreme court is in the process of sorting out hearings that were cancelled during the shutdown. The court continues to recommend all staff and parties were masks and maintain physical distancing.

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.

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's Supreme Court has reopened its building to the public while taking precautions to protect public health. Parties seeking access to case materials have been instructed to apply in advance and urged to communicate and distribute materials electronically. Hearings will resume as needed and employees' working hours will be set to follow safety measures.

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.

The Spanish judiciary's suspension of procedural deadlines is set to lift on June 4, but the judiciary said that all services that were deemed essential during the shutdown would continue to be prioritized as the courts resume broader operations.

The judiciary has issued new guidance for the courts during the pandemic, urging courts to use teleworking technology as much as possible. It has also published guidance on sanitary measures that should be adopted as the courts resume activity. 

Liechtenstein's courts resumed regular operations June 16 but said social distancing  measures would remain in place within the courthouses.

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'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's justice ministry said the civil court registries had reopened and it had progressively introduced more digital tools to allow judges to work remotely. The ministry is now looking at lifting the remaining restrictions on the courts.

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'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.

The Swedish government is in the proposing legislation designed to move the courts away from paper processing toward digital case management, allowing all written communications with the court to move to digital form. The changes would kick in at the beginning of 2021, under the proposal.

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

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