Coronavirus Delays Court Proceedings Around the World

By Hugo Miller | March 12, 2020

The wheels of justice are slowing down around the world as court systems based on open, public hearings deal with an outbreak that dictates the opposite.

In Connecticut, where the governor has declared a public health emergency, the federal courts on Wednesday ordered the suspension of all jury selections and jury trials scheduled to begin in the next month.

In his order, U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill noted that “trial jurors often have to work in close quarters to hear the evidence and deliberate following presentation of the evidence.” This went against the recommended precautions to avoid exposure to the virus, the judge said.

The Connecticut order follows a similar one last week by the federal courts in Washington state, which has been hit especially hard by the outbreak. Other U.S. courts have also delayed proceedings or instituted measures like temperature checks.

Such precautions are certain to put great pressure on the U.S. legal system. About 150,000 criminal and civil trials occur each year across state and federal courts, according to the Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts. Trials that use jurors, who are selected from a larger pool summoned to attend selections, will be particularly affected.

Switzerland’s highest court recommended that all of its public hearings be postponed until further notice as the alpine nation’s judiciary joins judges around the globe weighing drastic measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Two public hearings on March 12 and 19th have already been delayed on that basis, a spokesman for the Swiss Federal Court in Lausanne said Thursday.

The recommendation, which also suggests that cases that do continue move behind closed doors, comes as courts around Europe and Asia postpone hearings and delay some trials. Italy, one of the worst hit countries, has delayed all but the most urgent cases until after March 22. Vietnam totally shut its courts.

The Swiss canton of Ticino, which borders Italy, has declared a state of emergency and Switzerland may follow suit, national broadcaster SRF reported earlier Thursday, citing remarks from a Swiss federal health official. Italy has suffered the most deaths from coronavirus of any country outside China and more than 65,000 Italians commute into Ticino daily.

A final decision about timing of the Swiss cases rests with the presidents of the individual federal tribunal located across the country.

While it’s the most senior tribunal in the country, the Swiss Federal Court holds only 50-60 hearings and trials in public, a small fraction of the 8,000 cases it handles in a given year. Switzerland also has a federal administrative court but those proceedings are not typically of public interest.

A spokeswoman for the Swiss Federal Criminal Court, based in Ticino, wasn’t immediately available to comment on how that state of emergency has affected court proceedings there.

Other countries have also taken action to cut the activities in their courts as a way to stop the spread of the virus.

Vietnam’s government ordered all courts to suspend trials through March because of the outbreak, the Supreme People’s Court said in a directive posted on its website. No visitors to the courts will be allowed and no documents will be received, according to the directive.

In Italy, the legal system has been shut down, with all court hearings suspended nationwide until March 22 under a government decree drawn up by Justice Minister Alfonso Bonafede.

There will be a case-by-case evaluation of civil and criminal proceedings to decide which should be postponed until after May 31, and which will have to go ahead, newspaper La Repubblica reported last week. Much of the court staff is working from home.

In the U.S., some parties are not waiting for the courts to take action. On Tuesday, New York Attorney General Letitia James said a trial against opioid manufacturers and distributors scheduled to start March 20 will be delayed due to “abundance of caution” over the risk of infections.

State court Judge Jerry Garguilo will reconvene the sides on April 14 to set a new start date.

–With assistance from Alex Verge, Ross Larsen, John Follain and Mai Ngoc Chau.

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