On 11 May 2021, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued Official Letter No. 125/TANDTC-VP to instruct lower courts on the continued prevention of the COVID-19 outbreak (“OL 125“). Later, on 26 May 2021, the SPC issued Official Letter No. 155/TANDTC-VP on the continued prevention of the COVID-19 outbreak at the SPC (“OL 155“).
Below is a summary of key instructions from the SPC that may affect parties to lawsuits.
1. Temporary suspension of courts’ direct receipt of petitions and other documents
Local courts are now instructed not to receive hand-delivered petitions and other documents until the end of May 2021. In the meantime, parties to current lawsuits, including complainants and plaintiffs, are instructed to submit documents to the courts via other permitted means, namely through postal service or electronic submission. OL 125 notably does not clarify when the suspension ends.
The law is silent on whether the statute of limitations could be extended due to the court’s temporary suspension on receiving direct petitions. The COVID-19 outbreak is also not necessarily a force majeure event for late submission to courts under the current law. Hence, complainants and plaintiffs are advised to submit petitions to the court through registered mail services in order to meet the statute of limitations.
2. Area-based refrainment from opening court meetings and hearings
Depending on the COVID-19 prevention measures applicable in each area, local courts are instructed to refrain from opening court hearings and meetings, to classify and prioritize certain cases, or to operate as normal until the end of May 2021.
- In areas where the Prime Minister’s Directive No. 16/CT-TTg (i.e., the strictest COVID-19 prevention measures) is applicable, such as Bac Giang City and Bac Ninh City as of the date of this alert: Local courts will refrain from opening all court hearings and meetings, except for urgent cases as prescribed by laws such as voting list complaints or requests for application of temporary urgent measures.
- In areas where the Prime Minister’s Directive No. 15/CT-TTg (i.e., the second-strictest COVID-19 prevention measures) is applicable, such as some wards and districts of Hai Duong, Nam Dinh and Nghe An Province as of the date of this alert: The lower courts are instructed to classify the cases and prioritize cases such as those whose prescribed time limit for resolution (including the extended time that the courts can decide by law) would soon expire, or cases relating to COVID-19 prevention measures.
- For other areas: The courts’ proceedings will continue as normal provided that safety measures (such as face masks, and health declarations) are followed.
As the COVID-19 prevention measures applicable to each area are in fact updated on daily basis, the SPC does not provide for a list of lower courts with corresponding regimes. In practice, given the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in Vietnam, many local courts are extremely cautious and are inclined to apply strict COVID-19 prevention measures. Thus, other local courts, such as courts in Hanoi and HCMC, also seem to refrain from opening hearings and meetings except if necessary.
3. Other preventive measures within the courts system
According to OL 125, local courts will also refrain from summoning litigants and other concerned parties to court, and will not conduct any hearings or meetings with more than 20 people.
Under OL 155, the SPC’s staffs are instructed to adopt distancing measure and start working from home since 27 May 2021. It is unclear when the SPC will resume its normal work routine.
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Although OL 125 is technically an internal guidance from the SPC that has no legal value, lower courts are expected to strictly comply with the SPC’s instructions. Many local courts also have the tendency to take even more extreme COVID-19 prevention measures than what the SPC instructed. Thus, while the exact impacts vary in each area, OL 125 will likely delay court proceedings for many pending cases in Vietnam.
In case the COVID-19 outbreak worsens, the SPC may extend the term of OL 125 beyond May 2021. In fact, from our observation of some local courts, OL 125 and similar COVID-19 prevention measures within the Vietnamese court system are expected to continue to apply until mid-June 2021.