Coronavirus – extraordinary changes in court proceedings and the system of justice

The Ministry of Justice has issued recommendations restricting the activity of courts and announced introduction of extraordinary changes in the law regarding court proceedings, time limits defined by substantive law and the system of justice. The new solutions are a response to the coronavirus spread.

Announcement by the Ministry of Justice on emergency legislation for the system of justice of 19 March 2020.

The Ministry of Justice has presented assumptions for the draft amendments to the Act of 2 March 2020 on extraordinary measures for preventing, counteracting and combating COVID-19, other infectious diseases and emergencies caused by them. The draft amendments and the explanatory memorandum were submitted to the Ministry of Development, which coordinates works related to the amendment of the above-mentioned law.

Extraordinary changes in court proceedings and the system of justice – main assumptions

  • suspension of all limitation periods defined by substantive and procedural law
    Non-commencement or suspension of limitation periods:
    • time limits provided for by the civil law, whose observance is necessary for the grant of legal protection in court;
    • limitation periods for criminal offences and for execution of sentences for criminal offences, fiscal offences and petty offences, and in proceedings in petty offences cases;
    • procedural and court time limits in court proceedings, including administrative court proceedings, enforcement proceedings, criminal proceedings, penal and fiscal proceedings, proceedings in petty offences cases, administrative and enforcement in administration cases, as well as time limits in other proceedings conducted under the Act.
  • support for commercial companies and cooperatives Further amendments are aimed at enabling the governing bodies of cooperatives, housing communities and commercial law companies whose members may be quarantined. The amendments introduce the possibility to vote in writing or by means of distance communication.
  • official list of urgent cases The amendment specifies in detail the type of cases which are considered urgent and in which, exceptionally, hearings may be held. These include cases involving minors, domestic violence or pre-trial detention.
  • support for the courts Under the amendment there is a possibility of delegating the performance of urgent tasks to another court and simplifying the procedures for delegating judges to another court.
  • more penalties executable in electronic surveillance The draft also provides for amendments to the Executive Penal Code, which significantly extends the use of the Electronic Surveillance System (ESS). It is proposed to increase the upper limit of sentences or the amount of imprisonment, which determines the possibility of serving a prison sentence in the electronic surveillance system to 18 months (currently ESS is used for sentences of up to one-year imprisonment).

Announcement of the Ministry of Justice of 12 March 2020 on the operation of courts

On 12 March 2020 the Ministry of Justice issued an announcement on the organisation of the work of courts: it is recommended that all hearings and public hearings scheduled from 13 to 31 March 2020 be postponed, except for the most urgent cases.

Practical implementation of the recommendations is subject to a decision of the court president. According to publicly available information, the courts generally follow the Ministry’s recommendations: on websites of most courts it was announced that all hearings and public hearings, except for the most urgent cases, were cancelled. In many courts, the possibility to use the reading room of court files has also been limited and limitations have been introduced in the operation of the Customer Service Office and the administration office.

Apart from the above limitations, courts operate without changes, thus, it is possible to file claims, exchange pleadings, etc. The change in the organization of courts’ work does not apply to proceedings in which no hearings are held, including registration and perpetual usufruct proceedings. Administrative proceedings also remain outside the scope of changes.

List of urgent cases

The Ministry of Justice has provided the presidents of the courts with the so-called list of urgent cases, which are recommended to be tried in the emergency mode and excluded from the orders concerning the cancellation of hearings and meetings with the parties. These include, among others, cases related to the following:

  • application and extension of provisional detention;
  • imposition of a protective measure in the form of a stay in a secure hospital;
  • applicability of the statute of limitations with reference to the punishability of the act or the execution of a sentence;
  • execution of a European Arrest Warrant;
  • hearing a person for the purpose of securing evidence, or in a situation where there is a threat that it will not be possible to hear a certain person at a trial.

In commercial matters, in principle, all hearings are to be cancelled.

The presidents of the courts may decide on other cases requiring urgent consideration.

What does cancellation of hearings mean in practice?

The principle of open proceedings and the related obligation to conduct a hearing is one of the main principles of Polish procedural law. Most cases, including virtually all cases of greater importance, are obligatorily heard at a trial.

The inability to hold hearings means that all civil, criminal and administrative cases in which the hearing is mandatory, i.e., the vast majority of cases, will be heard late. The court will be able to issue ordinances or orders in closed session in these cases, and the parties will be able to exchange pleadings, but it will not be possible to complete the proceedings – until the hearing is carried out and closed.

According to public statements of the court presidents, hearings that are currently being cancelled will not be considered first in the future, but will be moved to the end of the queue – they will probably take place no sooner than a few months from the resumption of normal court work.

Other procedural effects brought about by the epidemic

In the event where the above changes to the law announced by the Ministry of Justice on 19 March 2020 enter into force, all limitation periods and procedural dates will be suspended by virtue of law.

In addition, there are arguments for considering that the state of epidemic emergency is a force majeure event, which entails the following effects:

  • suspension of limitation period for claims due to force majeure
    The limitation period for claims does not start and the commenced limitation period is suspended when, due to force majeure event (epidemic), the entitled person cannot enforce such claims in the court (Article 121 sec. 4 of the Civil Code).
  • permissibility of applying for reinstatement of the procedural time limit
    If a party to court proceedings without its fault (e.g. due to illness, quarantine, inability to return to the country, limited functioning of the post office, etc.) did not complete the procedural activity within the time limit, they may apply for reinstatement of a missed deadline. The application for reinstatement of the deadline must be submitted within 7 days of the cessation of the obstacle that caused the default, and simultaneously a procedural activity must be carried out.

How can we be of help?

Our Law Firm offers complex advisory services in the field of court proceedings, in all types of civil, administrative and criminal matters. Our knowledge is supported by many years of experience that we have acquired by representing leading domestic and foreign companies in disputes before courts of all instances, arbitration courts and the Supreme Court.

Among our services we offer in particular: support in negotiations and conclusion of court and out-of-court settlements / agreements, preparation of procedural strategy and arguments for the needs of the dispute, preparation of lawsuits and all pleadings, representation of entrepreneurs in arbitration proceedings and before courts of all instances and the Supreme Court.

If you wish to be provided with our support in the above scope or have any questions about the legal / procedural situation in the context of the spread of coronavirus, please contact us.