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6th Apr 2020

Coronavirus

EU courts still issuing verdicts despite pandemic

  • An empty lobby at the EU courts in Luxembourg where 2,300 people normally work (Photo: Cédric Puisney)

A lone judge will read out 16 verdicts in an almost empty chamber in the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg at 9.30AM on Thursday (26 March).

One senior jurist, called an advocate general, will also read out non-binding legal opinions on other cases.

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  • Lone judges to read out verdicts in empty rooms for now (Photo: curia.europa.eu)

A second judge will read out 12 more verdicts at 11AM in another empty room at the EU General Court, a lower tribunal.

And they will repeat the ritual every Thursday going forward until the virus alert ends.

The court buildings, which normally host 2,300 staff, were emptied last week due to the pandemic and just 100 or so "absolutely necessary" personnel now go in each day.

The courts were sealed to visitors, suspending all hearings and the lawyers and plaintiffs from all over Europe they bring with them.

And EU judges and their aides now conducted their deliberations from remote locations using an internal system.

"We're grouping the judgments to be read out on one day a week for practical reasons. So, we'll deliver several rulings this way every Thursday," the courts' press office told EUobserver.

"The deliberations of the court remain secret. That precludes [us] from telling you whether it's by videoconference or some secure online platform," it said.

The courts also prioritised "urgent" cases and relaxed deadlines for judicial acts, such as filing appeals, in non-urgent cases in other emergency measures.

And the net total of verdicts, which used to be read out on separate weekdays, was still similar to normal times, the courts said.

That was the state of rule of law at the highest level in the EU one month after the coronavirus arrived in Europe.

"That would be completely false," the courts said when EUobserver asked if the near-empty buildings meant a legal vacuum at the top.

Six staff sick

Six staff had fallen sick with the viral condition Covid-19, but none of them had severe symptoms, the courts noted.

They were among the 1,333 people who had tested positive for coronavirus in Luxembourg by Thursday morning.

The Grand Duchy, a wealthy micro-state of 614,000 people, has one of the highest infection rates per capita in the world and has gone into partial lockdown.

The EU court measures mirrored reactions by other tribunals in Europe.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, another country with a high level of infection, has closed buildings, suspended hearings, and switched to teleworking.

National courts in France were doing "essential" litigation only, such as child protection orders or hearings of suspects in detention.

Courts in Italy - the worst-hit EU member - suspended all hearings.

Tribunals in the Czech Republic, Greece, and the Netherlands were taking similar steps.

And courts in the UK have suspended all jury trials "for a short time".

"No jury trials or other physical hearings can take place unless it is safe for them to do so," Lord Burnett of Maldon, Britain's chief justice, said on Monday.

"All other hearings in the crown court that can lawfully take place remotely should do so," he said.

Forgotten risk

With national courts restricting work to priority cases, the pandemic has put in doubt judicial cooperation on extraditions using European arrest warrants.

It also augured delays for the almost 500,000 asylum applicants who were awaiting decisions in EU states as of January, according to figures from the European Asylum Support Office, an EU agency in Valletta.

But for Fair Trials, a London-based human rights NGO, those most at risk were also those most neglected by society - Europeans who were suspects or convicts already in custody.

They were at risk of injustice if novel working methods, such as videoconferences with their defence lawyers, violated their rights, such as the right to privacy, Fair Trials director Jago Russell told EUobserver.

And they were at risk of getting sick due to being trapped in crowded spaces.

"Prisoners are often forgotten by society and there's a risk that they'll be forgotten now when they're at their most vulnerable due to risk of infection," Russell said.

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