The Covid-19 pandemic has created uncertainty in many areas, including the schedule of court hearings. During the first wave of the pandemic, Slovak courts in most of the cases cancelled scheduled hearings or suspended them to a later time. However, the practice of the courts was not unified in this regard. While some courts cancelled or suspended hearings, or even proceeded in such a way as not to determine the date and time of the next court hearing at all, other courts conducted hearings (or at least a portion of them). Summer 2020 was – to a certain extent – peaceful, and some courts were able to conduct hearings, as we can confirm from our own experience.
The second pandemic wave that began in autumn 2020 impacted Slovakia more seriously than the first one, and the state of emergency announced on 1 October 2020 continues until now. The situation from spring 2020 has therefore repeated – courts again started to cancel hearings or to suspend them. Practically no hearings have been conducted in typical commercial or civil matters since last autumn.
In connection with the currently improving epidemiologic situation, hopefully the situation will also improve with respect to court hearings. Under the recent change of the decree of the Ministry of Justice of the Slovak Republic (No. 24/2021 Coll., on conducting hearings, main hearings and public sessions during the extraordinary situation and emergency state as amended) made by the decree of the Ministry of Justice (No. 159/2021 Coll.) of 27 April 2021, during the extraordinary situation or emergency state the courts should conduct hearings not only in the matters expressly stated in the decree (e.g., certain criminal, status or family matters), but also in other matters. The exception is when the matter can be suspended. Considering the fact that in many cases hearings have not been conducted for more than one year, judges should in our view apply this exception clause truly only in exceptional cases. They should take a pragmatic approach and conduct most of the hearings as scheduled—obviously on the condition that all applicable hygienic rules will be adhered to (in particular time differences between hearings, ventilation of hearing rooms, limits as to the number of participants, etc.).
What have we learned from the pandemic situation and what could we do better in the future?
- Videoconferences and remote hearings – As we live in a digital age, it is not enough only to talk about technologies—we should apply them in practice. In the near future it will be necessary (not only for the pandemic and other extraordinary situations) to equip state courts from the material and technological perspective in order to enable them in certain instances to conduct hearings also remotely. An inspiration for this can be international commercial arbitration courts, where such videoconferences are relatively common.
- Remote witness and expert examination – Many legal representatives have recently seen situations when the parties to a dispute and their legal representatives were able to attend the hearing, but not the witness or expert proposed by them. For instance, due to various quarantine measures, travel restrictions or even the restriction to move from one district of a certain state to another. The examination of a witness or expert by way of videoconferencing can save time and costs.
- Preference of commercial arbitration – Arbitration has been proven to be an appropriate alternative to dispute resolution for resolving commercial and civil disputes—even during the pandemic. By using videoconferencing and with the flexibility of the whole process, there has been almost no negative impact on the fluency of arbitral proceedings. As a result, there were practically no unnecessary delays in such proceedings.
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