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Has the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus infected the criminal justice system? An HFHR report

The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights has studied how the coronavirus pandemic has been affecting the broad criminal justice system in Poland since March 2020. The findings of the Foundation’s work have been presented in the report Has the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus infected the criminal justice system? HFHR’s report on how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the functioning of the criminal justice system.

The pandemic – a new iteration of old problems in the justice system?

The coronavirus pandemic and the continuing state of pandemic in Poland affect our daily lives and put our plans in jeopardy. A succession of lockdowns, restrictions, remote work or the closure of entire industries formed the backdrop for everything that happened in 2020 and the first half of 2021. The justice system has been affected, too.


The already fragile Polish justice system was an easier target for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. For example, Polish courts have been struggling for years with the problem of the excessive length of proceedings. The average duration of criminal proceedings pending before district courts in 2018 was 4.8 months and in 2020 5.8 months. Meanwhile, in regional courts, criminal cases were heard on average within 7.7 months in 2018 and 8.7 months in 2020.


One of the methods to avoid cancellations of court proceedings was to allow them to be conducted remotely. However, the overwhelming majority of remote criminal proceedings were cases pending before penitentiary courts.

Pandemic waves and an outflow of inmates

The pandemic reality was also reflected in penitentiary statistics. At the beginning of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, there were 65,012 convicted persons in Poland and this figure were decreasing monthly during the first months after the outbreak to reach the level of 58,278 in November 2020. This decrease was probably attributable to the fact that convicted persons were more frequently ordered to serve their sentences in the electronic monitoring system or given conditional early release. Currently, there are approximately 62,000 convicted persons at remand centres and prisons.

Longer pre-trial detention

Interestingly, pre-trial detention statistics are different from those concerning convicted persons: the highest number of pre-trial detainees was recorded in September 2020 (9,466), while the current population of pre-trial centres more is more than 8,500. Moreover, it must be noted that the average duration of pre-trial detention ordered by regional courts increased between 2018 and 2020, from 12.9 months to 15.3 months. It is the regional courts that handle the most difficult and complex criminal cases, and the increase in the average duration of pre-trial detention was likely caused by the extension of the duration of criminal cases before the above-mentioned courts, which, in turn, is probably a consequence of the prevailing SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus pandemic.

Difficulties faced by defence lawyers

Another point to note is the problems encountered by lawyers working in the court setting. One of the main problems they faced was difficulties related to access to case files in court reading rooms and the operation of court registry offices.

Back-door changes

The initial stages of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus pandemic also led to a series of amendments of the Criminal Code introduced by legislation known as “Covid Laws”. Under the pretence of combating the pandemic, the Covid Laws made several legal changes to the criminal justice system which were, in fact, in no way related to the pandemic. An example of such a change is article 278a of the Criminal Code, which introduced a new type of crime, “audacious theft”.


Documents to download:

Has the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus infected the criminal justice system? HFHR’s report on how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the functioning of the criminal justice system


The HFHR report was developed as part of Covid 19 – Criminal Justice Campaign, a project coordinated by Fair Trials International.

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