Not because of Netanyahu: More and more countries are limiting court activities

Political rivals slammed decision to postpone PM’s corruption trial, but due to widening COVID-19 pandemic, governments across the world are shutting courtrooms as well

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative. A hearing of the Court of Justice of the European Union. (Court of Justice of the European Union)
Illustrative. A hearing of the Court of Justice of the European Union. (Court of Justice of the European Union)

More and more countries around the world are shutting down their court systems, either partially or completely, in light of the spreading coronavirus pandemic.

On Sunday, the Jerusalem District Court announced that the opening of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial in three corruption cases has been postponed for several weeks, due to restrictions on Israel’s courts as part of the new measures to combat the virus that causes the COVID-19 illness.

The move was harshly criticized by Netanyahu’s political opponents, who accused the prime minister and his allies of using the corona crisis to escape justice.

But many other governments across the globe have already implemented, or are about to implement, similar restrictions on their legal systems. By contrast, countries that have not placed any limits on their courts are few and far between.

French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet on Sunday declared that “all French courts will be closed except for essential litigation.” Previously, some courts in the country continued to operate with certain limitations.

Austria on Monday will start implementing new rules under which court employees are asked to work from home, and the public is urged to refrain from filing new cases. Urgent and important suits will continue to be handled by the courts, but a party to a court case can ask for a postponement.

On Friday, the European Union’s Court of Justice announced that it had to temporarily restrict its judicial activities due to the crisis.

“Until further notice, only those cases that are particularly urgent (such as urgent proceedings, expedited proceedings and interim proceedings) will be dealt with by the Court,” it said in a statement.

“In all other cases, notwithstanding the fact that the Court of Justice is temporarily unable to deal with them, the procedural time limits, including time limits for instituting proceedings, shall continue to run and the parties are required to comply with those time limits.”

A view of an almost deserted Piazza del Popolo square in Rome, March 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

In Italy — after China the country hit hardest by the virus — no public activity of any kind is ongoing, including any court sessions. Spain, which so far counts more than 5,500 people suffering from COVID-19, all outstanding legal cases were temporarily suspended as well.

But even countries that have been less affected by the disease are also moving to restrict their courts.

Poland, with 111 known cases, last week decided that only urgent cases will be dealt with.

Hungary, where only 32 people have contracted the virus, has recently introduced new guidelines saying that in each and every case an individual decision is made by the presiding judge on whether the respective hearing will be held or not, based that two conditions: that the session will not result in a likely infection on the courtroom, and that people will sit at a distance of at least two meters from each other.

In some countries with a federal system, it is up to various regions and states to determine the extent to which the courts should function.

In Germany, each of the 16 different Bundeslaender decides whether to open schools, kindergartens and courts. In Berlin, for instance, authorities prohibited gatherings of more than 50 people, which makes holding major court cases highly impractical.

In other regions, gatherings of up to 500 people are allowed, but, like in Austria, parties to a legal case can request a postponement.

In the US, every court decides on its own how to act in the face of the widening  crisis, according Alexei Woltornist, a spokesperson for the Justice Ministry in Washington. “Their responses have been varied as dictated by local circumstances,” he told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

In New York and elsewhere, courts have started delaying civil and criminal trials that have not yet begun until further notice. Cases already underway are continuing — for now.

In Canada, too, it is up the different provinces to decide how to proceed. The supreme courts of British Columbia and Nova Scotia recently suspended jury trials, but other cases are ongoing.

The United Kingdom, with over 1,110 known cases of COVID-19 — one of the 10 countries most affected by the pandemic — has not yet placed any restrictions on its courts system.

Screen capture from video of Justice Minister Amir Ohana during a press conference at the Justice Ministry, October 29, 2019. (Facebook)

On Saturday evening, Israel’s Justice Minister Amir Ohana announced a 24-hour “state of emergency” in Israel’s court system, “as part of the national effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” which fueled speculation that Netanyahu’s corruption cases would be delayed.

A few hours later, the Jerusalem District Court indeed announced that the trial was being pushed off by more than two months due to the new restrictions on Israel’s courts as part of the latest measures to combat the coronavirus.

The move came just two days before the scheduled March 17 hearing, which according to the Courts Administration of Israel has now been postponed until May 24.

“In light of developments regarding the spread of the coronavirus, and taking into account the latest guidelines given and the declaration of a state of emergency in the courts, we have decided to cancel the scheduled hearing,” the three judges presiding over the case wrote in their announcement.

The prime minister faces seven counts of three criminal charges: fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000, and bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000.

The court’s decision, which Ohana insisted was not influenced by the political echelon, means that courts can only sit for urgent hearings on arrest and remand orders, administrative detention orders, offenses under legislation “relating to the special emergency” and certain interim relief in civil matters.

A statement from Ohana’s office said the decision was made based on Health Ministry recommendations and that “there is a real fear of serious harm to public health” if the court system continued as normal.

Ohana, a Likud MK and one of Netanyahu’s most vocal loyalists, who was appointed to the post by Netanyahu last June, in an acting capacity to replace Ayelet Shaked, has become a frequent critic of the courts and the criminal cases against the prime minister.

Ohana’s announcement came after Netanyahu and government officials announced a shutdown of all leisure businesses and activities throughout the country, and new restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people in the same place, in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

A man being tested for fever as he arrives for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The number of Israelis diagnosed with COVID-19 rose to 213 Sunday. The Health Ministry said two of the sick remained in serious condition, with 12 in moderate condition and the rest suffering light symptoms only.

Meanwhile, nearly 40,000 Israelis were in home quarantine for fear of exposure to the virus, including nearly 1,000 doctors, more than 600 nurses, 170 paramedics, and 80 pharmacists, according to Health Ministry figures. Health officials have conducted over 6,800 coronavirus tests nationwide so far, according to the ministry.

Netanyahu in November became Israel’s first sitting prime minister with charges against him, when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced he would indict him. The charges were only filed officially in January, when the prime minister dropped a bid for Knesset immunity.

Netanyahu denies the charges and claims he is the victim of an attempted “political coup” involving the opposition, media, police and state prosecutors.

Last week, the Jerusalem District Court rejected Netanyahu’s request to delay the start of the corruption trial.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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