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Organisation of justice - Belgium

This information file is subdivided into three main parts. Following a general introduction in the first part to the way that the judiciary in Belgium is organised, the second part will look at the jurisdictions of the civil courts. The final part consists of organisational charts showing the various levels of jurisdiction, from the District Courts to the Court of Cassation.

1. Introduction

a. Principles

Before proceeding to a presentation of how the judiciary in Belgium is organised it is necessary to elaborate on a few constitutional and general principles relating to the organisation of the courts.

The Belgian Constitution [1], at the same time as it set up the two other branches of government, the legislative and the executive, also established a judicial branch, provided for by the courts and tribunals. The courts and tribunals accordingly constitute an independent authority working in parallel with the other constitutional authorities.

Judicial authority is provided for by courts working within the framework of constitutional and legal provisions.

According to Articles 144 and 145 of the Constitution, disputes involving civil rights fall exclusively within the jurisdiction of the courts, and those involving political rights fall within the jurisdiction of the courts unless otherwise determined by law

No court can be established except by virtue of a law. Article 146 of the Constitution does not allow the setting up of any commissions or special courts, under whatever name.

Court hearings are held in public, unless holding them in public is considered prejudicial to public order or morals; and, in such cases, the court issues a declaration to that effect through a judgment (Article 148(1) of the Constitution). The principle of public hearings helps to ensure, among other things, that justice is transparent.

Every judgment is reasoned. It is declared publicly in open court (Article 149 of the Constitution). The duty to deliver reasoned judgments imposed by the Constitution, as well as by Article 780 of the Judicial Code, means that the judge must respond to grounds based on fact and on law raised in the submissions of the parties. The statement of reasons must be complete, clear, accurate and appropriate. The obligation of reasoned judgments, along with the independence of the judiciary, protects litigants against arbitrary decisions of the judge and enables them, in the light of the reasoned judgments, to decide whether or not to appeal to the Court of Appeal or the Court of Cassation.

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The independence of judges in the exercise of their judicial authority, and the independence of the Attorney General in the exercise of his investigations and prosecutions, without prejudice to the right of the competent Minister to order enquiries and to draw up binding guidelines in the matter of crime policy, including policy relating to investigation and prosecution, is guaranteed by Article 151(1) of the Constitution.

In accordance with paragraph 4 of the same Article, Justices of the Peace, judges of superior and administrative courts and judges of the Court of Cassation are appointed by the King on the conditions and in accordance with the procedures laid down by law.

Judges are appointed for life. They are retired at an age determined by law and enjoy a pension as provided by law. No judge may be removed from office or suspended except by a judgment. A judge cannot be transferred except by a new appointment and with his consent (Article 152 of the Constitution). The King appoints and also dismisses the officials of the Crown Prosecution Service working at courts and tribunals (Article 153 of the Constitution).

The pay of members of the judiciary is fixed by law (Article 154 of the Constitution).

Moreover, no judge may accept any salaried duties from any government, unless he undertakes to carry them out without reward and so long as there are no incompatibilities as determined by law (Article 155 of the Constitution).

b. Administrative Jurisdiction and Procedure Court [2]

The setting up of federal structures in Belgium led to the creation of the Administrative Jurisdiction and Procedure Court in 1983.

There is, for the whole of Belgium, a single Administrative Jurisdiction and Procedure Court, the composition, jurisdiction and operation of which are governed by law (Article 142(1) of the Constitution.

The Administrative Jurisdiction and Procedure Court has jurisdiction over (Article 142(2) of the Constitution):

  • conflicts as specified in Article 142 of the Constitution, that is to say conflicts of jurisdiction between laws, decrees and orders, as well as between one decree and another and one order and another, in cases of infringement of rules laid down by the Constitution, or by virtue of the latter, to determine the respective jurisdictions of the State, the Communities and the Regions;
  • infringement by a law, decree or order of Articles 10, 11 and 24 of the Constitution, which are the Constitutional provisions enshrining the principle of equality, the principle of non-discrimination and the principle of freedom to impart knowledge.

Cases may be referred to it by the Council of Ministers, governments of the Communities and the Regions, presidents of federal legislative benches, community and regional parliaments (at the request of two-thirds of their members) in which there is assumed to be an interest and by any person (physical or moral) evincing interest, or, as a preliminary step, by any jurisdiction (Article 142(3) of the Constitution and Article 2 of the special law of 6 January 1989 on the Administrative Jurisdiction and Procedure Court).

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Accordingly, any person (private or public) evincing an interest can lodge an application, before the Administrative Jurisdiction and Procedure Court, to have a rule of law set aside as discriminatory or contrary to the freedom to impart knowledge. The principles of equality and non-discrimination apply not only to the rights and freedoms recognised by domestic legislation but also to rights and freedoms conferred by international treaties directly applicable under the Belgian legal system, in particular by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of 1950.

2. Jurisdictions of the civil courts

a. Principles relating to the organisation of courts and tribunals

Judicial courts are organised according to a hierarchical structure.

At the top of this structure stands the Court of Cassation. The Court of Cassation, the supreme judicial court, heads all the judicial courts in the Belgian Kingdom. It does not deal with the substance of cases but examines whether the decisions referred to it contravene the law or the rules of procedure (Article 608 of the Judicial Code). Its jurisdiction covers the entire territory of Belgium.

One level below the Court of Cassation (in appeal terms) we have the Courts of Appeal referred to in the Constitution. There are five Courts of Appeal and the territorial jurisdiction is defined by the Constitution. These five Appeal Courts are as follows: the Court of Appeal in Brussels, for the provinces of French-speaking Brabant and Flemish-speaking Brabant and the bilingual region of Brussels-Capital; in Ghent, for the provinces of Western Flanders and Eastern Flanders; in Antwerp, for the provinces of Antwerp and Limburg; in Liège for the provinces of Liège, Namur and Luxembourg; and, finally, in Mons for the province of Hainaut.

In terms of degree of seniority, and in fact at the same level as the Courts of Appeal, there are the Labour Courts, sitting within the jurisdictions covered by the Courts of Appeal referred to above.

At a still lower level in this tiered structure there are the Regional Courts, Commercial Courts, Industrial Tribunals and Magistrates' Courts. The territorial scope of these courts corresponds to those of Circuit Courts. There are twenty-seven judicial districts throughout Belgium. In most of the judicial districts there is one Magistrates' Court per district, and in some of them, particularly in Brussels, there are several Magistrates' Courts [3].

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Right at the lowest level of the pyramid are the Justices of the Peace. Belgium has 187 Justices of the Peace. Their jurisdiction depends on the judicial district to which they belong. There is one Justice of the Peace for each judicial district.

Apart from the constitutional rules contained in Section VI relating to “judicial authority”, the organisation of the judiciary is governed by the second part of the Judicial Code, and more specifically, by Articles 58 to 555 quater of the Code.

The first book of this second part is devoted to the “Organs of the Judicial Authority”. The second book deals with “Legal Functions”, while the question of the Bar is tackled in the third book; and, finally, the provisions relating to “Process Servers and Bailiffs” are contained in the fourth and final book of this same second part.

Accordingly, the provisions relating to the organisation of Justices of the Peace, Magistrates' Courts, Circuit Courts [4], the District Court, the Industrial Tribunal, the Commercial Court, the Court of Appeal, the Labour Court, the Court of Assizes and of the Court of Cassation are provided for by specific articles of the Judicial Court (Article 58 of the Judicial Court).

In addition, it should be noted that the criminal benches of the Court of Appeal, the Court of Assizes [5], the Criminal Section of the District Court (Criminal Court) and the Magistrates' Court (trying criminal cases) also decide, in addition to civil jurisdictions, civil actions (essentially relating to claims for damages and interests) entered by civil plaintiffs, that is to say victims of crime in the broader sense

Below is the pyramid structure of the (civil) judicial courts.

Court of Cassation

Court of AppealIndustrial Court
  • Regional Court
  • Commercial Court
  • Industrial Court
Justice of the PeaceMagistrates'Court

b. Role of the State Prosecution Service in civil cases

In the Court of Cassation, Court of Appeal and Labour Court the functions of Attorney General are performed by the Principal Crown Prosecutor. In the District Court, Commercial Court, Magistrates' Court and Justices of the Peace these same functions are provided by the Crown Prosecutor, and at the Industrial Tribunal by the Special Prosecutor.

In civil cases, the Attorney General intervenes through legal proceedings, submissions or comment. This applies routinely in the cases specified by law and, in addition, every time public order requires his intervention (Article 138(3) of the Judicial Code).

Accordingly, the Attorney General officiates in all cases brought before the Courts of Appeal, Labour Courts, Regional Courts, Industrial Tribunals, Commercial Courts, Magistrates' Courts and the Justices of the Peace

One of the most important functions of the Attorney General in civil matters is to issue Opinions. All cases relating to specific matters, as mentioned in Article 764, paragraph 1, of the Judicial Code must be referred to the Attorney General for an Opinion. He may also require to have referred to him for an Opinion whatever other cases he deems appropriate, and the tribunal or court can also order cases to be referred to him as a matter of course (Article 764(2) of the Judicial Code).

Numerous provisions of the Judicial Code but also other legal provisions require certain cases to be referred to the Attorney General for comment. Article 764 of the Judicial Code, which is particularly relevant in this instance, makes provision for referral for comment, failing which a decision may be rendered void, especially in relation to applications in relation to status and legal capacity where minors or disabled persons are involved, applications relating to civil-status, requests for legal aid, arrangement with creditors, bankruptcy proceedings, the date when payment ceases, as well as actions to set aside extensions of time for payment and in the conclusion of bankruptcy proceedings.

At the Court of Cassation, the Attorney General is listened to in all proceedings (Article 1105(2) of the Judicial Code).

c. Detailed explanation relating to judicial jurisdictions (pdf 117 KB)

3. Organisational charts

a. Preliminary remarks

In positive law, the means of obtaining redress, that is to say, the procedures provided for by law which allow the parties to the proceedings or, in certain cases, allow third parties, to obtain a fresh decision in a case already judged by a court, are divided into two categories: ordinary appeal through the Court of Appeal, and special appeal on points of law to the Court of Cassation.

There are two kinds of ordinary appeal: application to set aside or appeal (Article 21(1) of the Judicial Code). These ordinary appeals are in principle always open to parties.

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Apart from these ordinary appeals, there are also so-called “special” appeals, the main one being an appeal on points of law to the Court of Cassation (Article 21(2) of the Judicial Code). A special appeal lodged with the Court of Cassation does not constitute a third instance or a third tier of the judicial system. The Court of Cassation monitors observance of the law and does not examine the facts of the case submitted to it.

Application to set aside (Articles 1047 to 1049 of the Judicial Code)

Any judgment by default (in the case of a defendant failing to appear) can be the subject of an application to set aside. Notice of this is given by a bailiff serving a summons to appear before the judge who handed down the judgment by default. Parties can also decide on a voluntary appearance before the judge (Article 1047(1 to 3) of the Judicial Code) . The only court with the authority to hear an application to have a judgment set aside is the one that gave the judgment by default (Article 1047(2) of the Judicial Code).

The time-limit for lodging an application to set aside is one month from the summons to appear before the court or the notification thereof. This time-limit of one month is extended when the party in default has no ordinary residence, permanent residence or address for service in Belgium (Articles 1048 and 1055 of the Judicial Code).

Appeal (Articles 1050 to 1072a of the Judicial Code)

Appeal is the procedure allowing the party that considers itself to have been wronged by a decision, to apply for that decision to be reversed by a higher court. It enables judges of higher courts to put right any mistakes committed by the initial judges, but also to compensate for mistakes made in courts of first instance in protecting their interests. The appeals procedure constitutes a distinct and independent level of jurisdiction with respect to that which took place before the initial judge and which is superseded by the decision that is the subject of the appeal. The appeal may be lodged in all cases as soon as the judgment is pronounced, even if the latter constitutes a decision before the case has been heard or has been handed down by default (Article 1050 of the Judicial Code).

The time-limit for lodging an appeal is one month from the summons to appear before the court or the notification thereof. As with applications to set aside, this time-limit of one month is extended when the party in default has no ordinary residence, permanent residence or address for service in Belgium (Article 1051(1, 3 and 4) and Article 55 of the Judicial Code).

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Appeal on points of law (Articles 1073 to 1121 of the Judicial Code)

The appeal on points of law before the Court of Cassation is lodged against final decisions, in all cases, handed down in trials or proceedings at last instance (Articles 608 and 609 of the Judicial Code). Decisions are referred to the Court of Cassation on grounds of error of law or of a failure to comply with formal procedural requirements, whether material or having to do with requirements failure to observe which makes the judgment null and void.

Except in those cases where the law lays down a shorter time-limit, the time-limit for lodging an appeal on points of law before the Court of Cassation is three months from the day of service of documents relating to the decision being challenged or notification thereof. When the applicant has no ordinary residence, permanent residence or address for service in Belgium, the time-limit mentioned above is extended in accordance with Article 55 of the Judicial Code (Article 1073(1 and 2) of the Judicial Code).

b. Organisational charts

1) Chart No 1(pdf 57,8 KB)

Path taken by a decision pronounced at first instance by the Justice of the Peace or Magistrates' Court followed by an appeal before a District Court or Commercial Court and, thereafter, possibly, by an appeal on points of law before the Court of Cassation:

Decisions handed down by the Justice of the Peace and Magistrates' Court

Appeals against judgments delivered at first instance by the Justice of the Peace and, in cases provided for under Article 601bis, by the Magistrates' Court, must be lodged before the District Court (Article 577 of the Judicial Code).

Appeals against decisions handed down at first instance by the Justice of the Peace in relation to disputes between traders and concerning acts described by the law as commercial transactions or disputes relating to bills of exchange, are brought before the Industrial Tribunal (Article 577 of the Judicial Code).

Judgments delivered by the Justice of the Peace and those delivered by the Magistrates' Court, in applications relating to compensation for damages resulting from a traffic accident, even if it occurred in a place inaccessible to the public, are handed down at last resort when a ruling is given on a claim whose amount does not exceed 1 240 Euros. In other words, this means that in the case of claims whose amount does not exceed 1 240 Euros the decisions of the Justice of the Peace and of the Magistrates' Court in the circumstances mentioned above are not open to appeal.

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Judgments delivered at last resort by the Justice of the Peace or Magistrates' Court can, however, be the subject of an appeal on grounds of points of law before the Court of Cassation.

2) Chart No 2 (pdf 45,1 KB)

Path taken by a decision pronounced at first instance by the Commercial Court or District Court followed by an appeal before the Court of Appeal and, thereafter, possibly, by an appeal on points of law before the Court of Cassation:

Decisions handed down by the District Court and by the Commercial Court

Appeals against decisions handed down at first resort by the District Court and by the Commercial Court, as well as decisions delivered at first instance by the president of the District Court and by the president of the Commercial Court, are brought before the Court of Appeal (Article 602(1 and 2) of the Judicial Code).

3) Chart No 3 (pdf 55,6 KB)

Path taken by a decision pronounced at first instance by the Industrial Tribunal followed by an appeal before the Labour Court and, thereafter, possibly, by an appeal on points of law before the Court of Cassation:

Decisions handed down by the Industrial Tribunal

Decisions handed down at first instance by the Industrial Tribunal and by the president of the Industrial Tribunal are brought, at second instance, before the Labour Court (Article 607 of the Judicial Code).

Useful links

  • Site of the Federal Justice Public Services de - fr - nl
  • Site of the judiciary in Belgium fr - nl

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[1] The reference to the Constitution in this document provides a link to the text of the Consolidated Constitution of 17 February 1994 (Moniteur belge - official government gazette - of 17 February 1994).
[2] See also the special law of 6 January 1989 on the Administrative Jurisdiction and Procedure Court, published in the Moniteur belge of 7 January 1989 and the Court's website.
[3] Article 3 of the Annex to the Judicial Code relating to territorial limits and to the location of courts and tribunals.
[4] The Circuit Court is composed of the President of the District Court, the President of the Commercial Court, or of the judges deputising for them in each of these courts (Article 74 of the Judicial Code). It gives preliminary rulings in the settlement of disputes concerning the jurisdiction of the judge to whom a case has been referred, when the latter has been disputed (Article 639 of the Judicial Code).
[5] The Court of Assizes hears cases of the most serious crimes such as, for example, assassination, murder, etc.

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Last update: 20-06-2006

 
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