Time For A "Coronavirus Disputes Court?"
by Robert Thomas, InverseCondemnation, March 27, 2020
The materials we were reading yesterday (particularly Steve Silva's "History: Fire and Blood(worth)," got us to thinking. There, Steve wrote about the September 2, 1666 London fire which destroyed 80% of the city, the government's emergency powers, and compensation. He also brought up a subject we had not know of before: the subsequent legislation -- the Fire of London Disputes Act 1666 (18 & 19 C. II. c.7)* -- which created the "Fire Court."
That court -- comprised of learned judges from existing courts (K.B., Common Pleas, and Exchequer) -- was created to resolve "Differences touching Houses burned or demolished by reason of the late Fire which happened in London" between landlords and tenants. The court began its seating on January 1, 1668. The legislation charged the court with resolving disputes about the required rebuilding, property boundaries, the "Rents as if the same had not been burned," and the like. The legislation noted the goal of spreading the public loss among the entire public, too:
And for that it is just that every one concerned should bear a proportional share of the loss, according to their several Interests, wherein in respect of the multitude of cases varying in their circumstances no certain general rule can be prescribed.
As noted above, the jurisdiction of the court included not only structures actually burned by the fire, but those "pulled down or otherwise demolished, defaced, or otherwise ruined by reason of the said Fire." The vibe of the statute seems to have been to get these disputes resolved in a single forum, and quickly (appeals had to be made in seven days for example).
There are analogies in American law. For example, after public authorities declared cordon sanitaire and accidentally burned down a large part of downtown Honolulu in 1900 (officials purposely set fires in Chinatown to root out bubonic plague, but winds carried the fire to other parts of town), the Supreme Court of Hawaii effectively served as a Plague Fire Court, resolving a series of cases involving insurance, landlord/tenant, and other disputes.
We're not formally trained in legal history, so we're just spitballing here on the details of the Act and how the Fire Court actually operated. But given the magnitude of the potential claims arising out the present situation, one way to bring the takings, commandeering, landlord-tenant, insurance, and other closely-related issues to a quick(er) resolution than the usual civil litigation slog might be a similar tribunal designed to resolve uncertainties and establish the rights of those affected.
We're guessing that one of the impediments to economic recovery after we're on the other side of this thing will be the uncertainties of litigation if disputes are resolved by the usual process. A "Coronavirus" court might be one way to push through those.
*This was in the days before parliaments and congresses got the "Always Be Closing" fever and simply named laws. Today, the "Fire of London Disputes Act" would probably be labeled the FIRE Act ("Freedom, Indemnity, Relief, and Emergency Act of 1666" or something.