Coronavirus: The Latest EU Court Closures And Restrictions

Law360 (March 16, 2020, 10:03 PM EDT) -- UPDATED March 27, 2020, 2:16 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.

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European Court of Justice & General Court of the European Union
Both the ECJ and the General Court have partially closed their doors. The courts will hear only urgent matters until further notice. All other cases already scheduled until March 27 at the ECJ and April 3 at the General Court will be heard at a later date. The filing deadlines for all cases will not change.

Starting Monday, the European Court of Justice building, which also houses the European Union's General Court, will be closed and the more than 2,000 members of staff asked to work from home.

All of the ECJ’s judgments scheduled for the week beginning March 16 will be handed down in one session on Thursday, March 19. The judgments for the following week will also be given in one session on March 26.

The General Court will deliver all judgments scheduled for the period it is closed over two sessions on March 26 and April 2 at 11 am.

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.


United Kingdom
» England and Wales
The judiciary has radically reduced the number of courthouses open as of March 30 to handle urgent matters that need to be held in person, cutting operations down to 157 "priority" buildings that account for 42% of the courts in England and Wales.

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.

After officials sought to continue some jury trials, on Monday morning the lord chief justice of England and Wales, Ian Burnett, said no new jury trials would begin. Only cases where "specific arrangements" can be made to ensure the jurors' safety will begin.

Ongoing jury trials are still continuing as of March 26 and the courts that still require in-person attendance have set up social distancing measures. Though the courts had already stopped seating juries for longer trials, they had continued to begin jury trials expected to take three days or less.

Magistrates courts, which deals with extradition matters and initial proceedings in criminal cases, will proceed with urgent matters but any hearings that can legally be held remotely should, according to the new guidance. The courts said March 26 that they were working with the rest of the criminal justice agencies to introduce "processes" to be able to handle a broader range of cases, but did not detail what those steps would be.

On March 19, Justice Burnett called for the "default position" in civil and family court proceedings to become using hearings where some or all the participants are attending remotely.The senior judge also urged attorneys to work together to figure out how that will work in practice instead of immediately seeking adjournments, which will only lead to backlogs and delays on an “intolerable level.”

Justice Burnett has also said there is an "urgent need" to increase the use of telephone and video technology to hold hearings remotely, and said that emergency legislation that is being drafted should boost the ability of the criminal courts to use that technology in a wider range of hearings.

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

HM Courts and Tribunals Services department, an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice, has meanwhile published guidance for all users of the courts and tribunals in the U.K., which will be updated regularly as new advice on tackling the coronavirus outbreak is given from the government and Public Health England.

The guidance says that while the business of the courts remains open, any changes to individual hearings will be communicated directly to those affected. In practice, a number of criminal and civil matters have been postponed.

HMCTS said that the courts and tribunals will remain open and that professionals, witnesses, jurors and defendants are free to enter the buildings unless they have symptoms of the virus and need to follow the government’s guidance on self-isolation. The guidance sets out the court’s hygiene policies and confirmed that its security policy has changed to allow people to bring in hand sanitizer.

Judges can also consider audio or video links during hearings where a defendant does not need to attend in person.

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 judiciary 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 lord chief justice for Northern Ireland said that starting March 26, the courts would consolidate all matters in the Royal Courts of Justice, Laganside Courts, Craigavon, Dungannon and Londonderry.

The courts will only hear urgent matters going forward, likely using remote technology ranging from telephone and live link hearings to Sightlink, Zoom or BTMeetme.

The courts have instructed members of the public not to go to court even if their names are on the court's hearing list. Cases will be adjourned by default without people having to attend.

The courts had already said they would prioritize cases involving individual liberty, health and safety, such as bail applications, child abduction and urgent injunctions. Northern Ireland's judiciary had also called off any further new jury trials earlier in March. 

» Scotland
On March 19, the Scottish courts said the buildings would remain open for "essential business," but said individuals should not go to court until required to do so.

All public counters have closed for service in the Scottish courts as of March 23. The courts have set up drop boxes but urged parties to email filings as well.

There will be no new criminal jury trials going beginning until further notice. Jury trials currently in process will wrap up if possible. The criminal courts also plan to significantly cut the number of summary trials, focusing on trials with defendants in custody. The only other criminal trials allowed to go forward if witnesses are available are expected to be those involving domestic abuse and other violence.

The courts have adjourned all civil matters that require witnesses but will continue with civil matters that do not "where possible." Hearings can go forward based on written filings or using telephone or video conferences if the parties agree. Filings can be mailed or left at reception.

Most tribunals hearings are being postponed. Any time-sensitive matters will be held by telephone.

Ireland has limited the courts to hearing only urgent cases and cases that do not involve witnesses in the next few weeks. The Irish courts service said that would allow far fewer people to be in courtrooms for those matters that do go forward. Parties can leave documents in drop boxes at the courts or submit notices of consent to adjourn civil cases by email.

The Irish Supreme Court and Court of Appeal have adjourned appeals that were scheduled for hearings until April 3. 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.

As of March 24, 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 and asked the courts to cancel sessions as much as possible. The Ministry of Justice said trials could be postponed within reason and the limits on detaining individuals before trial.

Italy's judiciary has suspended all hearings through March 22 with limited exceptions and called for the use of videoconferences or other remote hearings for urgent criminal matters.

Germany's Federal Administrative Court said it would restrict its operations starting Wednesday until April 19. The court has cancelled all hearings during that period and will only hear urgent matters that can't be postponed. The building has been closed to the public, but the court will continue to accept filings as usual.

The Federal Court of Justice has not posted any formal announcements about changes related to the coronavirus restrictions, but it has posted at least one cancellation for a hearing that had been set for Thursday.

Another German court has limited the scope of a landmark trial over cum-ex trades so that the trial can continue even in the face of a mass slowdown of public activity to combat the coronavirus.

The court said Monday that it was excluding four of five financial firms who could forfeit around €400 million ($446 million) in the event of a guilty verdict against the two defendants in the case, only going forward with the individual defendants and Warburg Group.

The cases against BNY Mellon, Société Générale, Hansainvest and Warburg Invest can be taken up later, if appropriate, the court said.

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 judiciary said it would be up to individual courts to make decisions on restricting access, but said the courts would continue to handle urgent matters but would not be able to prioritize most legal proceedings, including criminal and civil cases.

The Copenhagen district court said it would continue to handle matters with urgent deadlines, injunctions or dealing with arrests, but canceled most other criminal and civil matters.

The Portuguese Supreme Court of Justice said March 11 that it has temporarily closed for two weeks but indicated that the move would not prejudice urgent cases dealing with imprisoned individuals.

The Norwegian Supreme Court has postponed all hearings from Friday through March 26. The move will not affect written proceedings before the Appeals Selection Committee. The court also said it would go ahead with hearings where "postponement is inexpedient."

Iceland said Friday 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 judiciary in the Netherlands has closed its courts starting Tuesday. The only proceedings that will go forward are urgent matters like arraignments and urgent family law. The courts will use video conferencing or telephone hearings wherever possible. The courts will be closed to the public until April 6 and no one with colds or fevers will be allowed to enter the courthouses.

The Austrian Supreme Court has restricted access starting Monday, 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 said it would not completely close to the public, but urged anyone attending to reach out by phone or in writing beforehand. Starting Monday, the court said all visitors would have to have their temperature taken and anyone with a fever would be refused entry. Visitors will also have to answer questions about whether they have been in high risk areas or exposed to anyone affected.

The court encouraged electronic filings and said it would only open for in-person filing on Mondays and Wednesdays between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m.

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.

As of Sunday, 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 judiciary has suspended most trials through March 27 and suspended time limits for a variety of filing deadlines.

Bulgaria's Supreme Judicial Council suspended most proceedings with the exception of certain urgent cases like extradition and domestic violence protection orders.

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 from Monday until March 27. Its office in Bratislava is closed. Filings in person can only be made from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the mailroom of the Košice location.

Latvia's Supreme Court said it would not allow visitors until April 14. 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.

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.

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's judiciary said Monday that no courts would be closed unless required by the health authorities, but suspended proceedings and procedural deadlines to focus on providing essential services.

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's Federal Criminal Court has suspended all hearings and public visits.

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 local courts would be closed temporarily until further notice. That has also led to the suspension of the work of public notaries.

The Cyprus Supreme Court said the country's courts would suspend all hearings until the end of April with the exception of urgent matters like emergency warrants and procedures related to political asylum cases.

--Additional reporting by Richard Crump, Paige Long, Joanne Faulkner and Todd Buell.

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