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Coronavirus backing up courtrooms around the world

by Hugo Miller and Gaspard Sebag Bloomberg News | May 27, 2020 at 4:21 a.m.

Courts reopening around the globe are confronting a backlog of thousands of cases, including UBS Group's $4.9 billion tax-evasion penalty, former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes's accusations of fraud and even the 2016 Brussels terrorist attacks that killed 32 people.

The volume of cases shelved as courthouses were shuttered in response to the coronavirus pandemic may take months, possibly years, to work through. Many courts are adopting measures to help clear dockets, whether simply dropping minor matters, throwing more judges at the issue, or plea-bargaining cases that might otherwise have gone to trial.

Stay-at-home orders imposed across Europe and the U.S. forced judges, lawyers and prosecutors to turn to technology to try to keep the wheels of justice turning. But the use of Zoom and other video conferencing has not kept courts moving at their previrus pace, not least because many parties still want live hearings and are willing to argue for them.

"Not only were decisions not being rendered during the lockdown, but proceedings weren't advancing, so it's going to take a very long time before things go back to normal," said Stephane Bonifassi, a white-collar criminal lawyer in Paris. "We're looking at one year and that's frightening."

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About 400 scheduled criminal cases a week were postponed in the French capital during the lockdown, leaving a backlog of 3,200 cases, chief Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz told a French parliamentary commission earlier this month.

To deal with Paris' backlog, Heitz said prosecutors would drop about a third of the least serious cases, while another third will be dealt with through simplified proceedings or plea agreements. Some jury trials, usually reserved in France for the most violent crimes, may now be decided by judges.

Delays have hit many of the highest-profile cases.

The fraud trial of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the once high-flying blood-testing startup Theranos, has been pushed to Oct. 26 from its original July 28 date. The case is closely watched in Silicon Valley where, before the company unraveled, it attracted the backing of some of the leading venture capital firms and achieved a valuation of $9 billion.

The case against suspects in 2016 terrorist attacks on the Brussels airport and metro system has been put on hold by the virus. Federal prosecutors in Belgium said last month that, because of social-distancing concerns, it wouldn't be feasible to hold a hearing to decide which court should try the suspects.

Another matter that may be delayed until at least next year is UBS' appeal of the record $4.9 billion penalty imposed by the French government for helping clients stash undeclared funds in offshore accounts. Though the Swiss banking giant had hoped its petition would go ahead in June, judges at the Paris Court of Appeals last month postponed the case. A new date will be set next week.

A Section on 05/27/2020

Print Headline: Coronavirus backing up courtrooms around the world


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