While many countries are challenged to find digital solutions to tackle problems created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Estonia has in many ways had an advantage due to our long-term efforts to digitalise the public administration.
Estonia had already created everything the courts, prosecutor's offices, prisons and legal professionals needed to work remotely before the current crisis began. Moreover, everyone with an Estonian ID has access to governmental services digitally, and they can sign and exchange digital documents securely. All of this has resulted in a minimal need to reorganize work and change existing laws.
The emergency situation in Estonia was declared on the 12th of March. From this time, it has been recommended that all persons who can work remotely do so. Judges, court staff and legal professionals are able to conduct most proceedings in writing remotely thanks to the information system and digital court file application. Nevertheless, all of our courthouses have remained open, although with limited opening hours.
All necessary procedural acts and court hearings continue to be conducted during the emergency situation, however where possible by technical means of communication such as virtual meeting rooms that have been created for the ministry, courts, prosecution offices and prisons to raise the capacity to hold video conferences. If it is not possible to hold a hearing by technical means of communication, the court will decide whether to hold a hearing on the basis of the circumstances of each particular case. Hearings are to take place in the largest hearing room available, while all physical contacts, such as handing papers to another person, are to be minimised. All rooms are thoroughly cleaned after each session. Statistical data also confirms that the courts are operating similarly to previous years, meaning that the emergency situation has not had a significant negative impact on the capacity of the courts to resolve cases or on average processing time.
Where options for wider use of digital solutions were not already included in the law, such as in the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Code of Misdemeanour Procedure, the ministry has acted quickly to keep the system running.
On Monday, April 20th, the Parliament of Estonia approved draft legislation submitted by the Ministry of Justice which will allow for greater use of digital solutions in criminal and misdemeanour proceedings and thus reduce physical contact in the performance of procedural acts.
Other amendments proposed to combat the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic foresee the suspension of the term for which a mentally ill person is placed in a psychiatric hospital or a social welfare institution, in order to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus and avoid physical human contact in care facilities, and provide for the temporary suspension of time limits for directors to fulfil their duty to file for insolvency.
On Monday, the Government also submitted a bill to parliament which proposes to extend the decision-making capacity of the governing bodies of all legal entities without the need for their members to be physically present at board meetings and would allow for the use of electronical alternatives instead.
Similarly, the Chamber of Notaries, the Bar Association and the Chamber of Bailiffs and Trustees in Bankruptcy have reorganised their daily work in order to work remotely.
Estonia is also fortunate to be able to benefit from another long-term project which has been to develop an e-Notary platform, which has been operational since this past February. Deployment of the newest version was accelerated, and as of 6 April the platform has enabled notaries to perform most notarial acts remotely using a video bridge. This has proved most useful now that it is recommended that all face to face meetings be postponed. For example, real estate transactions can be done over the internet without any of the parties leaving their home or office. The only things that cannot be done by remote authentication are marriage, divorce or entries regarding marriage or divorce. Although initially there were plans to introduce the new version gradually, the Ministry of Justice decided to speed up the implementation of remote authentication to both limit the spread of the coronavirus and ensure vital public services at the same time.
In order for a notarial act to be performed, the persons involved need an ID-card, Digital ID, E-resident's Digital ID or Mobile-ID with valid codes to be able to sign documents digitally. The identification system is based on biometric face authentication technology developed by Veriff.