How the state of alarm declared as a result of the expansion of the Coronavirus has affected the judicial and administrative system, and how the Government has had to take measures to safeguard the rights of citizens in these matters.
The situation caused by the fast expansion of COVID-19, also known as “Coronavirus”, has forced the Central Government to decree the State of Alarm, which, among many other issues or measures not covered by this article, entails the obligation for the citizens to be confined to their homes.
As a logical consequence of the above, and following the recommendation of the CGPJ (agreement of the Permanent Commission) and the Secretary of State of Justice, the Council of Ministers, in an extraordinary meeting, which lasted more than seven hours, held on March 14th, agreed to approve the ROYAL DECREE 463/2020, which declares the state of alarm in order to manage the health crisis situation caused by COVID-19.
The first question we can ask ourselves is, what does the State of Alarm mean? Well, the state of alarm, foreseen in article 116 of the Spanish Constitution and its further application foreseen in organic law 4/1981, is the one that allows that in cases of special and exceptional gravity such as “health crises, for instance epidemics and serious contamination situations” a set of severe measures can be taken limiting fundamental rights that affect the day-to-day life of citizens, such as restricting freedom of movement (forcing citizens to stay at home), food rationing, closing down establishments, or even requisitioning personal property (for example, requisitioning masks for hospital staff), etc. The State of Alarm has, by law, an initial duration of 15 days, which can be extended if necessary, with the agreement of the Congress of Deputies.
Such exceptional measures, of course, involve a deeply unusual situation, and because of the consequences it entails, the State of Alert can only be adopted in the event of any occurrence, “when extraordinary circumstances make it impossible to maintain normality through the ordinary powers of the competent authorities“.
Currently, since the World Health Organization has already qualified the expansion of the Coronavirus as a “pandemic”, and since Spain is the third country in the world with the highest number of infections, it seems clear that the scenario, both from a social and economic point of view, is highly exceptional, and therefore the Government has agreed to declare a State of Alarm, precisely for situations such as the one we are facing.
And within the framework of this exceptional or anomalous situation of a State of Alarm, the Government, through the Council of Ministers, must detail the specific measures that must be agreed upon in each case, and among them an essential one has been adopted in relation to legal services, which is the suspension of all procedural and administrative deadlines, with some exceptions. So what does the suspension of these deadlines mean?
Well, the suspension of procedural deadlines implies, as its name suggests, that the days that elapse between the suspension and the raising of the same (that is, until the end of the State of Alarm and its extensions) shall not count the deadlines of all ongoing legal proceedings, so that neither trials nor written submissions, nor requests, nor submissions will be made which are not done electronically. Neither will applications or appeals be admitted, and the deadlines for formulating these are also suspended, which means, for instance, that the time limit for appealing against a hypothetical traffic fine will start to run from the moment the exceptional state of Alarm is raised. The above can be done in any jurisdictional order (whether civil, criminal, administrative or commercial) and at any instance (First Instance, Second Instance, Supreme Court or the Superior Court of Justice).
Regarding the tax scope, we are aware that the Government issued last Friday, March 13, 2020, the Spanish Royal Legislative Decree 7/2020 so that those taxpayers who meet a series of requirements – those whose volume of operation does not exceed 6 Million Euros in 2019 – can apply for a deferment of tax debts, provided that the value of the application, in total, does not exceed 30,000.00 Euros. What debts can be deferred? All those consisting of declarations, settlements and self-assessments whose deadline for presentation and payment is between 13 March and 31 May 2020, including, therefore, interim payments, VAT, or deferred payments, among others.
On Monday 16 March 2020, the Ministry of Justice issued an information note clarifying that the suspension also extends to all auctions in progress from Monday 12:30 pm. Furthermore, it confirms that this Decree is fully applicable also to property registries, commercial registries and movable property registries, so that any pending proceedings before any of these bodies must wait until the end of the State of Alert.
However, we shall look further, as the suspension provided for in RD 463/2020 does not only affect judicial or administrative deadlines, but also affects the legal concept known as “substantive law”, i.e. the law that governs the rights and obligations, beyond procedural or administrative rules. This is because the RD to which we constantly refer establishes in its 4th Additional Provision “Suspension of limitation and expiration periods. The prescription and expiry deadlines for any actions and rights will be suspended for the duration of the state of alert and, where appropriate, any extensions adopted”. This also suspends the deadlines for expiry and prescription regulated by the Spanish Civil Code (whether in respect of state regulation or all those communities with their own sectoral or regional regulations), whereby in those actions for which the law provides a short deadline (such as actions to recover possession of a certain asset, which prescribes within one year), we must bear in mind that the days when the State of Alarm is in force will not run for the purposes of calculating the prescription
In conclusion, this RD provides a set of guarantees for citizens, especially to ensure that the obligation to remain at home as a result of the declaration of the State of Alarm does not imply any damage to their rights as a result of not having been able to exercise them in a situation of “normality”, thus helping to prevent the further expansion of COVID-19.