Lawyers fined after coronavirus fears prompt them to skip court hearing

Paul Keres, one of the two lawyers who Harju County Court fined, after they expressed concerns over COVID-19 practices at the courthouse.
Paul Keres, one of the two lawyers who Harju County Court fined, after they expressed concerns over COVID-19 practices at the courthouse. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Two lawyers have been fined €1,600 for failing to attend a court hearing last month.

The lawyers, Paul Keres and Andri Rohtla, said they had not attended on the day in question, April 27, due to fears over the coronavirus and precautions in place in court, set against what they called muddled information on best practices, and inconsistent activity on the part of the courthouse.

The lawyers were representing defendants in the Port of Tallinn (Tallinna Sadam) corruption case, and their client, Ain Kaljurand, also failed to attend the hearing, at Harju County Court, in Tallinn, on April 27.

Kaljurand was issued a warning at the same time the fines were issued, Thursday.

Judge Kristina Valiste says Keres, Rohtla and Kaljurand had provided no good reason to not attend the hearing.

Keres and Rohtla, who say they plan to appeal the fine, say they informed the court in advance that they could not attend the hearing due to health concerns.

Paul Keres told BNS that in the current pandemic situation, the overwhelming public opinion is that representatives of public authorities should engage solely in remote working and avoid unnecessary contact. The court had previously conducted hearings in more well-ventilated venues, he added.

Keres said: "Last year, when we did not really know very much about the coronavirus and the situation was not as bad as it is now, the court held trials outside the courthouse in the RKAS building's conference hall."

The RKAS is the state real estate company.

"There was enough space for everyone to breathe calmly and safely there [at the RKAS building]. This year, for some reason, the court is not considering doing this and is consistently driving us into the courthouse. At the same time, the executive power and the research council advising it caution everyone to stay home, otherwise there will be no summer," Keres added, referring to the government and its coronavirus advisory council, headed up by Professor Irja Lutsar.

"Totally inappropriate, I do not know who to believe," Keres added.

The fine does not release the lawyers from the further performance of the obligation in respect of their client and the case, while failure to do so may result in a new fine, BNS reports.

The court said that it ensured adequate coronavirus preventive measures on its premises, while any contracting of the virus which the three may have experienced could not be pinned down to Harju County Court in isolation.

"The court also lacks knowledge of how the parties to the present proceedings comply with safety requirements outside the courtroom," the court said.

On March 17, the court says, Paul Keres had told Harju County Court he would be avoiding contact with individuals not within his immediate circle, yet he broke with this rule in a TV appearance some weeks later. The court also says that the hearing in question is not the largest one being processed currently at its premises, on Lubja 4 in Tallinn, while the lawyers are engaged in other hearings as well, both in person and remotely.

"This leaves the impression that the lives and health of the participants are endangered precisely, and only, due to this one process, in which spatially (among other measures) the court has in fact ensured health safety in the best possible way," the court went on.

The court had rejected a request for larger rooms for the Port of Tallinn hearings on costs grounds, though the largest hall available was used for this Thursday's hearing, BNS reports.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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