At the time of writing of these lines, Portugal is a country at various speeds. Some economic sectors are fully operational, others are restricted, and others are still waiting for specific rules to be approved before they can resume their operation. The same is true of both the private initiative and the public services side.

One of the Portuguese Government's response measures to the exceptional situation of prevention, containment, mitigation and treatment of the epidemiological infection by SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 disease was the suspension of most judicial proceedings' deadlines. This suspension regime was approved late, which led to the production of retroactive effects, and, less than a month after its entry into force, it underwent important changes, having remained in force since then, at least until the last week of the month of May 2020.

If, under normal circumstances, legislative production is a complex process and one that does not always manage to produce practical results in a timely manner, the incredibly exceptional circumstances in which we found ourselves – and those in which we find ourselves now, which are a little different – led to a profusion of legislative diplomas that adjusted, almost in real time, the Portuguese State's response to the crisis scenario. In this regard, the justice sector is as affected as any other sector.

Let's start at the beginning.

On March 18, 2020, it was decreed, for the first time since a plural democracy regime is in effect in Portugal, a State of Emergency. The legal diplomas in question proceeded with the application of a set of extraordinary and urgent measures to restrict rights and freedoms, especially with regard to movement rights and economic freedoms, with a view to preventing the transmission of the virus in the context of pandemic decreed by WHO (World Health Organization). In practice, at that point many aspects of life in Portugal already faced severe restrictions or profound changes – partly through legislation – and, in particular, the Portuguese courts, at their own discretion and closely following the news sources close to the Portuguese Government, had already cancelled most of the scheduled hearings, maintaining only those that referred to processes in which fundamental rights were at stake.

The following day, through Law 1-A/2020, of March 19, the suspension of most procedural deadlines was decreed, with retroactive effects. The formula found by the legislator was to suspend all urgent cases and applying to the non-urgent cases the judicial vacation regime, which occur at periods determined by the procedural law and during which procedural acts are not performed, with the exception of urgent and those relating to cases involving detainees or where individual freedoms are at stake.

This suspension was applied not only to the acts in the processes and procedures in the courts, but also to those of other jurisdictional bodies, arbitral tribunals, the Public Prosecution Service, judges of peace, alternative dispute resolution entities and tax enforcement bodies.

With the necessary adaptations, an equal suspension was applied to the procedures in progress in the notaries and registrar offices, to the sanctioning and disciplinary administrative proceedings in progress in all administrative services and bodies (of the State and also independent) and to the administrative and tax deadlines in progress at favor of private individuals.

The limitation and prescription periods for all types of processes and procedures were also suspended.

On the other hand, the law safeguarded all lease agreements, suspending the effects of revocation communications or eviction actions.

The Law did not decisively prohibit the practice of any procedural and procedural acts, admitting them through appropriate means of distance communication, namely by teleconference or video call, if this were considered technically feasible. The obligation to practice such acts in person was restricted to urgent acts in which fundamental rights were at stake (for example, acts relating to minors at risk).

Two weeks later, Law 4-A/2020, of April 6, changed and clarified certain aspects of the suspension regime.

An interpretative rule made it clear that the suspension of deadlines had undoubtedly started on March 9, 2020.

On the other hand, the performance of acts and hearings through means of distance communication became dependent on the agreement of the parties in this regard.

Additionally, the legislator reversed the intention of suspending the deadlines in urgent cases, having changed the regime so that they were resumed and the respective acts and diligences were practiced, preferably through appropriate means of remote communication or, if this is not possible, in person. For this purpose, processes and procedures for the defense of rights, freedoms and guarantees injured or threatened with injury by any unconstitutional or illegal measures, and the processes, procedures, acts and actions that prove necessary to avoid irreparable damage, namely the proceedings related to minors at risk or to urgent educational guardianship proceedings and the diligences and judgments of imprisoned defendants, are considered as urgent processes.

The rule that motivates this text has always remained unchanged, since the original diploma, and refers to the end of this exceptional regime, providing that it would be the Government to establish, in its own decree-law, the end date of the situation of prevention, containment, mitigation and treatment of epidemiological SARS-CoV-2 infection and COVID-19 disease for procedural purposes.

In recent weeks, the various operators in the justice sector have been commenting on the possible ways to try to recover the procedural delays verified by the pandemic outbreak of the disease COVID-19, with some professionals defending the reduction of the judicial vacation period as a measure that could mitigate the effects of the suspension. Dissenting voices warned that the scheduled vacation days for court officials, as well as for magistrates themselves, could not be undermined. The Minister of Justice ended up putting an end to the dispute, clarifying to newspapers that nothing would change in the judicial calendar.

The final text of the decree-law that will decree the resumption of judicial deadlines and puts an end to speculation is as of right now known and it is expected that all deadlines and activity are resumed by the beginning of June.

Until this situation is definitively overcome, the Courts will continue to process cases within their respective possibilities and some procedural acts will continue to be practiced by more expeditious judicial agents before their respective deadlines, as has always happened (including during any judicial vacation periods).

And, except for an initial period of greater activity in the fulfillment of all the procedural deadlines that were suspended, the resumption of the activity of the Courts is expected to be peaceful, more constrained by their already very busy agendas than by any lack of will or means of the various judicial operators.

It would appear that all those who depend on a swift and effective Justice for the exercise of their legitimate rights will remain without an answer or compensation, especially if the use of the Courts is decisive for the survival of companies, businesses and even professionals, in what is historically the biggest stoppage of the judicial system in its current form, surpassing by far the IT crash of the CITIUS platform (the supporting platform for all judicial courts) that took place in September 2014 and which lasted, at the time, for 44 days.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.