Ordinary courts - Belgium
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This section presents an overview of the ordinary courts in Belgium.
Ordinary courts — introduction
The Court of Cassation: this is the supreme court, the ‘court of courts’ and is established in Brussels.
The ten provinces and the Brussels-Capital administrative district have an Assises Court. It is not a permanent court but is convened whenever accused persons are sent before it.
Courts of appeal
- Appeal courts: there are 5 in Belgium:
- Brussels (for the judicial districts of Brabant Wallon, Leuven and Brussels),
- Liège (for the judicial districts of Liège, Eupen de Namur and Luxembourg),
- Mons (for the judicial district of Hainaut),
- Gent (for the judicial districts of West and East Flanders)
- Antwerp (for the judicial districts of Antwerp and Limburg).
- The employment courts: there are 5 in Belgium. These are the appeal courts specialising in employment law. They are established in the jurisdictions of the appeal courts mentioned above.
Courts of first instance
- First instance courts: there are 13 in Belgium (one per judicial district and two in the district of Brussels, 1 NL and 1 FR).
- Employment courts: there are 9 in Belgium (in principle one by the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal, with the exception of the jurisdiction of the Brussels Court of Appeal, where a labour court is held in Leuven and Nivelles and two labour tribunals exist in Brussels (1nl and 1FR), and with the exception of the judicial district of Eupen).
- The company’s courts: there are 9 in Belgium (in principle one by the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal, with the exception of the jurisdiction of the Brussels Court of Appeal, where a court of the undertaking is maintained in Leuven and Nivelles and two courts of the company exist in Brussels (1nl and 1FR), and with the exception of the judicial district of Eupen).
Inferior or local courts
- Magistrates’ courts: there are 187 cantonal courts in Belgium (one for each judicial canton).
- Police courts: there are 15 in Belgium, or 1 per judicial district with the specificity of Brussels, which counts 4.
Jurisdiction of the courts
The justice of peace processes all applications below EUR 5 000 which are not allocated exclusively to another court. The cantonal judge also has jurisdiction in rent, neighbourhood, easement and expropriation disputes, whatever the sum involved, as well as interim orders between spouses. Unless a decision is reached on an application, the amount of which does not exceed EUR 2000, the judgments of the justice of the peace shall be subject to appeal before the Court of First Instance.
The police court
The police court is a criminal and civil court that considers petty offences, offences reduced to petty offences, breaches of special acts (such as the Rural Code and Forestry Code), claims for damages resulting from traffic accidents and road traffic offences. The judgments of the police court are open to appeal before the Court of First Instance except in the matters listed in the Judicial Code when a decision is taken on an application for an amount not exceeding EUR 1240.
The Court of First Instance
The first instance court has jurisdiction in all disputes other than those assigned by law to other courts. This is termed the residual jurisdiction of the first instance court.
The first instance court is subdivided into three sections: The civil court, the criminal court, the family court and the juvenile court. Since 2007 there has also been a division called the court for the enforcement of sentences at the courts of first instance in Antwerp, Brussels, East Flanders, Liège and Hainaut.
The civil court deals with cases that affect the status of individuals. It also has jurisdiction in disputes involving a sum of more than EUR 1 860, disputes concerning inheritance tax or copyright, as well as appeals against judgments delivered by a cantonal court.
The misdemeanours court is a criminal court responsible for punishing all lesser indictable offences and crimes reduced to misdemeanours, such as swindling, fraud, manslaughter, burglary and robbery. It also serves as appeal court for judgments delivered by the police court.
A matter may be brought before the misdemeanours court by means of a direct summons by the public prosecutor’s office or by the party claiming damages or by means of an order by the pre-trial chamber, which, at the end of the investigation, determines whether the accused is sent before the misdemeanours court.
The pre-trial chamber is an investigating court consisting of a judge of the first instance court sitting alone, who considers whether there are grounds to refer the matter before the misdemeanours court or decides not to prosecute the accused (non-suit). It is also the pre-trial chamber that decides whether the accused is to be detained on remand or released, if necessary subject to certain conditions, either on a month-to-month basis or every three months in the case of a crime reduced to a misdemeanour.
Detention on remand is a security measure whereby a person suspected of having committed a lesser indictable offence or a crime is held on remand pending trial. This measure is imposed to avoid suspects disappearing at the time when they are to appear before the judge, committing other offences in the meantime, trying to dispose of evidence or contacting third parties (for example, in order to influence witnesses or co-defendants). Suspects ultimately acquitted or against whom proceedings have ceased may seek compensation from the Minister for Justice for the time unjustly spent in prison: this is compensation in the event of unlawful detention. Two conditions must be met in order to receive this compensation: detention on remand must have lasted more than eight days and the detention or continued detention must not have been caused by the personal conduct of the suspect. The Minister assesses this latter condition very strictly.
Decisions of the pre-trial chamber may be challenged on appeal before the indictment chamber. It represents the investigating court at appeal court level.
The juvenile court
The youth chambers that make up the juvenile court are competent for cases involving minors at risk and minors who have committed criminal offences.
Only the Public Prosecutor’s Office can decide whether a case will be brought before the juvenile court or not. You cannot go to the judge yourself, for example in civil matters. A young person can be brought before the juvenile court in two cases:
- If he has committed an offence, the police communicate his name to the public prosecutor’s office. It then decides whether the facts are sufficiently serious to bring them to the attention of the youth judge;
- If he lives in a difficult situation, he probably already had contacts with a Youth Welfare Service (SAJ). If the situation is not resolved, the SAJ sends the file in question to a mediation commission dealing with special youth assistance. If necessary, this mediation committee may ask the public prosecutor’s office to refer the case to the juvenile court so that an appropriate measure can be taken.
The family court
The family courts have jurisdiction over all disputes of a family nature.
These powers are set out in Articles 572a and 577 (3) of the Judicial Code.
Save for exceptions, the court or tribunal shall, whatever the amount of the dispute, have jurisdiction:
- in respect of all requests concerning the status of persons and the consequences thereof: disputes relating to marriage or its obligations, divorce and its property consequences, establishment and contestation of filiation, objections to certain decisions adopted by civil registrars, etc.
- in respect of any claim relating to legal cohabitation and the consequences thereof: measures relating to the assets of cohabitants, the cancellation of legal cohabitations, etc.
- for any request relating to children: determination of the arrangements for the exercise of parental authority and/or accommodation, determination of rights to personal relations, etc.
- for any request relating to maintenance obligations: fixing or modifying a maintenance allowance for a former spouse or parent, determining or adjusting a maintenance contribution, etc.
- for certain applications relating to family allowances: determination by the lessee of the family allowances or a challenge to the payment of those allowances to the lessee.
- for all applications relating to the family’s assets: donations of family property, settlement of property belonging to spouses, disputes relating to successions (e.g.: abandonment of succession), etc. › for any request relating to the temporary ban on residence in the event of domestic violence.
The court is also competent to take provisional and urgent measures.
Finally, it also has the power to deal with any appeal against the decisions of the justices of the peace on incapacitated subjects.
Courts for the application of sentences
Sentence enforcement courts deliver judgments on the external legal status of persons sentenced to deprivation of liberty. They rule on granting the following arrangements: Limited detention, electronic surveillance,release andrelease, and release for expulsion from the territory or return. The public prosecutor’s office and convicted persons may lodge an appeal in cassation against the decisions of the sentence enforcement courts.
Appeals against the decisions of the court of first instance
With the exception of decisions handed down by the sentence enforcement court, when one of the parties or the public prosecutor’s office is not satisfied with a judgment delivered by a first instance court, he, she or it may appeal the judgment, provided that it was delivered at first instance, i.e. not following appeal against a decision already given by a police court or cantonal court. In such a case it is the appeal court that considers the matter, irrespective of whether it comes under the civil court, misdemeanours court or youth court.
The labour tribunal
The employment court has jurisdiction in social matters: social security (pensions, unemployment, etc.), industrial disputes (employment contracts, labour regulations, etc.) and industrial accidents. It also rules on petitions for collective settlements of debts filed by individuals.
The employment court comprises various chambers. Except where otherwise provided by the Judicial Code, these consist of a professional presiding judge and two lay judges. Depending on the nature of the case being dealt with by the court, the lay judges represent workers, employers or self-employed persons. They are appointed after being nominated by organisations in the world of work (employers, white-collar workers, manual workers or self-employed persons). As for the public prosecutor’s office, it is here termed the prosecution department attached to the employment courts and the public prosecutor is the prosecutor attached to the employment courts.
In the event of disagreement with the judgment of the employment court, the parties may appeal before the employment court of appeal.
The court of the company
The court of the company has jurisdiction over disputes between undertakings for any amount.
Action by an individual against an undertaking may also be brought before the court of the undertaking.
The court of the company deals with disputes between undertakings, i.e. natural persons who are self-employed (traders, professionals and administrators), legal persons (companies, associations and foundations) and organisations without legal personality. Disputes cannot be brought under the special jurisdiction of other courts, and as far as natural persons are concerned, they cannot relate to a measure which is manifestly unconnected with the undertaking.
The court of the undertaking shall comprise one or more chambers. Each chamber is composed of a career judge and two consular judges. Consular judges are not professional judges, but are entrepreneurs, company directors, accountants, corporate revisers, etc. They help the career judge with their experience in the business community.
In some cases, the public prosecutor’s office intervenes in the court of the company. It is then exercised by the public prosecutor, one or more first substitutes and one or more substitutes.
If the parties wish to challenge the decision of the court, they shall lodge an appeal with the Court of Appeal. However, the judgment under appeal must have been delivered at first instance.
Courts of appeal and labour courts
The appeal court consists of several chambers:
- Civil chambers consider appeals against judgments delivered at first instance by the civil sections of the first instance courts and by the commercial courts.
- Misdemeanours chambers consider appeals against judgments delivered at first instance by the misdemeanours courts.
- Youth chambers consider appeals against judgments delivered at first instance by the youth courts.
- The indictment chamber is the investigating court responsible for appeal against decisions of the pre-trial chamber. It is also the indictment chamber that sends suspects before the assize court because they have committed a crime, a press offence or a political offence.
As in the case of the Labour Court, the Chambers of the Labour Court are composed of a professional judge called an adviser and 2 or 4 social counsellors. The employment court of appeal considers appeals against decisions of the employment courts.
When a person is accused of a crime that cannot or has not been reduced to a misdemeanour, he or she is summoned to appear before the assize court to be tried by a jury of the people.
The assize court is presided over by a professional judge, assisted by two assessors, also professional judges. They do not rule on the guilt or innocence of the accused. It is for the members of the jury, also called jurors, to decide whether the accused has committed an offence. The jurors are chosen at random from within the population. Every Belgian aged between 28 and 65 who exercises civil and political rights, can read and write and has never been sentenced to more than 4 months ‘imprisonment or more than 60 hours’ community service may be called upon to undertake jury service.
The assize court proceedings start with reading of the indictment, summarising the fact-finding process that brings together the main evidence gathered during the investigation. Then, the witnesses and persons concerned by the investigation are heard. These hearings must enable the jurors, who have not been able to consult the court file, to reach an opinion. Next, the public prosecutor’s office states its charge, the parties claiming damages speak and the lawyers make their arguments. The accused is also heard. He or she answers questions put by the presiding judge, provides explanations, and may also plead his or her innocence. At the end of the proceedings, the 12 jurors retire behind closed doors. They must decide on the guilt or innocence of the accused. They decide by voting and their decision may be qualified. They may, for example, find the accused guilty while recognising the existence of extenuating circumstances. If the accused is found guilty, the professional judges and the jurors deliberate together the sentence to be imposed. This decision is taken by absolute majority. Decisions on the guilt of the accused must be reasoned.
In general, a judgment of the assize court is not open to appeal. The convicted person, the party claiming damages and the public prosecutor’s office may, nevertheless, appeal in cassation to the Court of Cassation. If a conviction is quashed, that is to say, set aside by the Court of Cassation, the case is referred to another assize court, which must give a further ruling.
Press offence and political offence
In order to talk about a press offence, there must be culpable expression of thought through texts diffused in multiple copies by means of a technical process. A political offence is an offence committed for a political reason and for political purposes. The assize court deals with public prosecution for political offences and press offences, other than press offences motivated by racism or xenophobia.
Court of Cassation
The Court of Cassation is the guarantor of observance of the law by the courts and tribunals. It has jurisdiction over the whole of Belgium. the Court of Cassation does not rule on the facts but only on questions of law. Appeal in cassation may only be lodged based on legal grounds, that is to say, in the event of breach of the law or of a general principle of law. Appeal in cassation is only possible against judgments delivered at last instance, that is to say, decisions against which it is no longer possible to lodge an ordinary appeal.
The Court of Cassation consists of a senior president, a president, section presidents and judges. The public prosecutor’s office is represented by the prosecutor-general attached to the Court of Cassation or by an advocate-general. The Court consists of three chambers: the first considers civil, commercial, fiscal and disciplinary cases, the second criminal cases and the third cases concerning employment and social security law. Each of these chambers consists of a French-language section and a Dutch-language section. Each section duly sits with five judges.
Before giving their ruling, the judges hear the opinion of the public prosecutor’s office attached to the Court of Cassation. The Court of Cassation may decide to dismiss the appeal in cassation. If the arguments put forward are not allowed, the appeal is dismissed and the contested judgment becomes final. If the Court of Cassation takes the view that the contested decision was taken in misinterpretation of law, this decision is set aside, in full or in part, with or without being referred. The judgment is quashed and referred to a court having the same status as the one that delivered the contested judgment if it is necessary to consider the substance of the case again. The case is never referred back to the same court.
It may be worth pointing out that alongside the civil courts, the criminal courts — the criminal divisions of the court of appeal and the assize court, the criminal division of the court of first instance (the criminal court) and the police court (when it hears criminal cases) — also hear civil applications lodged by civil parties who have asked for their claims to be joined to the criminal proceedings; these are essentially applications for damages brought by victims of crime in the widest sense.Legal databases
Further information about the courts and tribunals is available on the portal of the Judiciary in Belgium http://www.juridat.be/
Is access to the database free of charge?
Yes, access to the database is free of charge.
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Last update: 29/10/2019