Coronavirus and Court Closures – What Happens to my Claim?

April 2, 2020

 

The Government has announced that over half of court and tribunal buildings are to close to reduce the risk of court users spreading COVID-19.

A priority network of 158 court buildings will remain open for essential face-to face hearings, however, wherever possible, hearings will be conducted via telephone or video link.

Court closures – will this affect my hearing?

The Lord Chief Justice announced on the 23 March 2020 that ‘hearings requiring the physical presence of parties and their representatives and others should only take place if a remote hearing is not possible and if suitable arrangements can be made to ensure safety’. However, the decision as to how a hearing is conducted is ultimately a matter for the judge presiding.

Legal Proceedings – what happens to my claim?

Despite the court closures, the judicial process itself remains largely unchanged. This is causing increased concern among those who are unclear as to how Covid-19 may affect their claims.

For example, what if you are unable to meet a court deadline for filing your defence or witness statement because you are having to self-isolate? Or what if the limitation period for issuing your claim is expiring in the next few months?

Although the government is introducing changes which will impact on insolvency proceedings and the ability to forfeit commercial leases, no specific legislation has been passed nor any guidance issued to assist parties where a claim is ongoing.  

At present, the general position in relation to extensions of time is that parties can agree extensions (without the consent of the court) of up to a maximum of 28 days, provided the extension does not put any hearing date at risk. However, any such extension would require the cooperation of the opponent.

Whilst we hope that the majority of opponents will engage sensibly in attempts to agree extensions of time given the current circumstances, inevitably there will be some who will seek to use such matters to their advantage by adopting an unwaveringly rigid stance.  It is hoped that the courts would be sympathetic to an application for relief from sanctions in such situations.

Some lawyers have suggested that time limits for procedural claims should be automatically extended and in addition, limitation periods for civil claims should be automatically suspended amid the Covid-19 outbreak. However, whilst the Government insists that they are considering immediate reforms to ease pressure on those struggling to meet deadlines, it remains to be seen what actions, if any, the Government will actually take.

In the very recent case of O’Driscoll v F.I.V.E Bianchi S.p.A, the High Court handed down what has been called the first ‘Covid-19 direction’. The decision displaced the normal rule for extensions of time by ordering that the parties may agree extensions of time for up to 56 days (as opposed to 28 days) by consent without further order from the court. We expect to see the courts making such orders increasingly frequently pending official guidance.

 

 

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