The COVID-19 pandemic forced governments around the world to implement a variety of restrictive measures with significant economic and social impact.
In the initial stages of the pandemic, many countries took advantage of ongoing digital processes that were already an integral part of our lives (read more here). For instance, leaving home was only possible after sending an SMS, and compliance with quarantine measures was sometimes ensured by tracking the location of the person through their mobile device.
After the initial shock of the pandemic and when governments and citizens realised that the virus will be around longer than anticipated, the "new normal" forced public authorities and businesses to digitalise their services and make them easily accessible online. "Going online" was primarily aimed at overcoming the economic consequences of the pandemic, and ultimately, at surviving.
In Bulgaria, COVID-19 acted as a natural catalyst for the digitalisation of the public sector. Plenty of Bulgarian laws and regulations have been adopted or amended to allow the remote use of public sector services. We have outlined some of the important practical implications of this latest push towards e-government and e-justice.
In 2020, a number of amendments were introduced to the Civil Procedure Code ("CPC") to regulate possibilities for remote actions in the otherwise conservative rules of civil litigation. The CPC allowed various participants in civil proceedings (such as translators and sign language interpreters) to take part remotely. The immediate effect of this move was avoiding crowds in the courtroom. In a wider perspective, however, the changes could contribute to more flexibility and speed in civil litigation.
The possibility for remote participation in court hearings is the backbone of the digitalisation of civil litigation. Such possibility was introduced with the newly adopted provision of Article 135a of the CPC - participation via videoconference. Moreover, the additional provisions of the CPC include a legal definition of "videoconferencing", namely - “communication link through a technical means for simultaneous transmission and reception of image and sound between participants in the process, located in different places, allowing recording and storage of information on electronic media”(1). Nevertheless, paragraph 2 of the same Article 135a gave rise to serious controversy. Pursuant to this paragraph, in the case of participation via videoconference, the party should take part in court hearings while being physically located in a room, specially equipped for this purpose, situated in a district court that is determined by a special procedure. This legislative approach rather limits the possibilities provided by various technologies, but on the other hand guarantees a higher level of security in terms of network connectivity, the devices used, unauthorised recording, etc.
With the introduction of the possibility for videoconferencing, the court was also vested with new responsibilities to ensure the proper conduct of the hearing. They include recording the videoconference, monitoring the ongoing connection between the participants and the court, as well as the continuous transmission of sound and images from the respective videoconference. The court makes a video of the conference call, which becomes an integral part of the case and is kept until the expiration of the term for storage of the case.
The use of videoconferencing can also be applied in the process of proving various facts - for example, in accordance with Article 156 of the CPC, when making evidentiary requests, the party has to indicate whether the use of videoconferencing is necessary, in which case the court is given the opportunity to assess its necessity.
Another highlight besides videoconferencing has been the possibility for electronic serving of notices by the court, with the aim of optimising the speed of court proceedings. The electronic serving of court documents requires time both for the integration of the respective technologies and for the adaptation of the participants in the proceedings. It is therefore envisaged for these changes to enter into force on 30 June 2021.
In spite of the pandemic, the real estate market has continued its steady growth. This phenomenon caused plenty of queues at the Bulgarian Registry Agency because of the need to make inquiries, request certificates of encumbrances and others. The need to digitalise some of the services quickly became pretty urgent. Hence in the first days of 2021, the rules for entries in the Registry Agency were changed. In particular, a new paragraph 2 of Article 42 was introduced, pursuant to which the Registry Agency provides an opportunity for the request of various services through registered remote access, as well as the possibility for a preview of the electronic image of requested uncertified transcripts of scanned copies through the Single Electronic Administrative Services Request Portal. The scope of services includes inquiries on entries, notes and deletions, extracts from the contents of all books and registers, uncertified transcript of all entered and marked acts or acts of deletion, as well as a certificate of the presence or absence of entry - described in detail in paragraph 1 of Article 42 of the Registry Rules.
Numerous other public authorities have taken steps to improve their existing online services. The increasingly widespread use of qualified electronic signatures also play a key role in this process. Additionally, another push for public sector digitalisation in the near future may come from electronic identity certificates.
The COVID-19 pandemic will leave a lasting imprint on our understanding of the use and provision of services. The pursuit of social distance and the "new normal" has enhanced our perception that in the age of facial recognition and other biometric identification data, electronic signatures and others, there is much benefit in embracing online services in the public sector. The public administration should actively push for the digitalisation of its services as a way to maintain citizens safe and healthy.
(1) Paragraph 1, item 1 of the additional provisions of the CPC