Victims, attorneys want courts to handle more cases; thousands delayed by Covid-19

Scales of justice and gavel on law book
Scales of justice and gavel on law bookPhoto: tomloel/DepositPhotos

Despite the coronavirus crisis, courts urgently need to handle more criminal cases, according to defense lawyers, the Bar Association, and victims. Many thousands of criminal cases are being delayed because the courts and tribunals closed to all but the most urgent cases in mid-March. And the already significant backlogs are building up, NOS reports.

The Dutch Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers calls for the courts to reopen. "Courthouses and rooms are often very large. It is therefore possible to hold a hearing and still comply with existing regulations," chairman Jeroen Soeteman said. "We understand the difficult situation that the judiciary is now, but if experts can agree with this working method, we must apply it. Now criminal law is almost completely halted."

The Bar Association supports this call, saying it receives similar signals from other jurisdictions. Currently only lawsuits in which a decision has to be urgently made is being handled. According to the Bar, the term urgent is "very strictly defined" 

Victim Support Netherlands also hopes that the judiciary will at least make more digital hearings possible. "Postponing cases will only increase the already long lead times," spokesperson Jytte Reichert said to NOS. "While a lawsuit is so important for victims and surviving loved ones. Only after a substantive hearing they can get closure."

On March 6th, shortly before the coronavirus really became a crisis in the Netherlands, the Public Prosecution Service reported that some 23 thousand criminal cases had to be postponed due to capacity problems. With the coronavirus closing court rooms, those postponed cases just keep piling up. The Amsterdam court, for example, held only eight hearings scheduled this week, compared to 60 criminal cases per week a month ago, according to the broadcaster. 

"Physical hearings are very rare now, but that does not mean that the entire judiciary has come to a standstill," a spokesperson for the Council for the Judiciary said to NOS. Some cases are handled in writing, others via video- or phone call. The Council said that the number and types of cases considered urgent enough to handle will increase in the near future. Talks are currently underway with lawyers and the Public Prosecution Service, among others, to handle more cases in writing or by phone. 

The Council also said that in almost all cantonal cases, a ruling was made this past week. These involve smaller cases like speeding offenses. In total, judges gave 22 thousand rulings - just under 80 percent of the normal number of cases in a week, according to the broadcaster.