A file that remained in the wrong cupboard, an understaffed public prosecutor’s office and community bickering: the terrorist attack a month ago shows the shape of the Brussels justice system. BRUZZ looked at what the four biggest challenges are and how to solve them.
Site 1: finding staff
The Brussels public prosecutor’s office, which tracks down and prosecutes perpetrators of crimes, should have 119 magistrates. In reality, there are only 95. “If you subtract the people who are absent for more than a month, that is still 83,” says Crown Prosecutor Tim De Wolf. “Dozens of employees are also missing from administrative support.”
In April 2023, the public prosecutor’s office therefore issued a number of crisis measures ‘with pain in the heart’: fewer people before the police court, less summary justice for thieves who have not used violence, and perpetrators of family violence who are no longer prohibited by the public prosecutor’s office from returning home. to turn. All this in order to be able to properly implement the priorities. “That context makes us vulnerable, but the wrong handling of the Abdesalem Lassoued case (the terrorist who murdered two Swedish football supporters a month ago, ed.) should not have happened,” De Wolf emphasizes. That matter was a priority.
The shortage is not new. This was already the case in a 2001 audit. However, the current government promises to fully complete the framework and even expand it with five additional magistrates and fifteen public prosecutors.
Rightly so, says retired judge Luc Hennart. “The staff of the cadre is priority number one for a well-functioning justice system. In 2013, the framework of the court of first instance, which I chaired, was increased from 99 to 122. In 2019, the backlog was completely cleared.”
Although you still have to find the magistrates. There are shortages in the public prosecutor’s office on both the Dutch and French speaking sides. The current magistracy is also experiencing problems. Six of the nineteen Brussels cantons do not have a justice of the peace – where the required bilingualism is an additional barrier. The framework within the Court of Appeal in Brussels is also not fully completed in both Dutch and French.
“In general, we are reaching fewer and fewer participants with our entrance exams,” says Lucia Dreser, chair of the Dutch-speaking appointment committee of the Supreme Council of Justice. “How does that happen? That’s the million dollar question. Young people are less attracted to the magistracy, which seems to have lost its status.”
The difficult entrance exams also deter candidates. That is why the Supreme Court of Justice focuses on preparatory information sessions and feedback. These should increase the current success rate of approximately one in five. In addition, exams are organized more often, and new entrance tests are also offered, such as for family law and tax law. “In this way we reach the same number of graduates as before,” says Dreser. “But that will not be enough to absorb the wave of retirements.”
Site 2: digitization
The transition from paper to digital is a second important project. Abdesalem Lassoued’s file, which was left in the wrong cupboard and was therefore not followed up, shows how important this is.
Yet the justice system has actually already made quite some progress in this regard today. The digital follow-up tool for magistrates – JustOne – is being fully tested, including by the Brussels public prosecutor’s office. Alarm bells, where the file lights up red if the deadline has been exceeded, will drastically reduce the chance of files gathering dust. That system should be operational in the course of 2024.
JustOne is just one of 29 digitalization projects. After all, justice is a house with many rooms. To be truly efficient, the entire chain must be digitized. We’re not there yet. For example, the police still send police reports by post to the public prosecutor’s office, which are then scanned. Depending on the court, lawyers sometimes still have to put their petitions and conclusions on paper. And to view the file, those lawyers often have to go to court.
Why does it all take so long? Partly because these are important documents, the authenticity of which must be guaranteed. “But also because part of the magistracy is still attached to paper,” says Stanislas Van Wassenhove, coordinator of the observatory that monitors digitization in the judiciary. “Complicated and outdated programs such as MaCH did not help people make the transition. Fortunately, the tools that are now being developed are a lot smoother. This sometimes concerns very practical matters such as being able to underline in a text.”
Van Wassenhove believes that digitization will be complete within two years. “That is thanks to former Minister of Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne (Open VLD), who made this a priority. At the same time, there was also money for this through the European recovery fund. And of course corona has also given digitalization a boost. In the meantime, we even have a bit of an advantage over France and the Netherlands,” says Van Wassenhove.
Site 3: Clearing the backlog
The judicial process in the judicial district of Brussels is slow, very slow. So slowly in fact that the European Court of Human Rights convicted the Belgian state for it on September 5, 2023. The reason was a case that was initiated in 2015 and would not be heard on appeal before March 2026. “This excessively long duration is of a structural nature,” it said.
The Court of Appeal in Brussels is undeniably the bottleneck that causes the ‘traffic jam’. Only 75 to 80 magistrates work there, while three quarters of the really major cases in Belgium come before that court. After all, the governments and headquarters of many banks and companies are located in Brussels. In the meantime, the lead time continues to increase. For a civil case, the median processing time in 2018 was 806 days. In 2022 that was already 1,024 days.
“That is far too long,” says lawyer Simon Deryckere, who wrote in the book Justice in Time proposes some procedural quick wins. “A defendant now has no incentive to move it forward. On the contrary, if the proceedings are slow, there is a chance that the reasonable period will be exceeded or the case may become time-barred. Anyone who appeals in criminal cases does not yet have to pay the fine or compensation to the victim, and does not have to go to jail, even if he has been convicted in the first instance. Appealing is therefore encouraged. This way you will be ‘at ease’ for a few more years, especially in Brussels.”
Deryckere wants to partially remove this suspensive effect. “Compensations to the victim must be paid immediately. And for specific crimes such as drug and human trafficking, financial sanctions such as fines and forfeitures should be implemented immediately. Some will no longer appeal because they have already paid. There is no point in delaying the process anymore. This frees up more space to deal with other matters.”
Another quick win is to expand the scope for class actions. Now this is only possible for consumer matters, for example Testaankoop versus Volkswagen. “That should also be possible in the event of a bank collapse or an act of terrorism. Now each victim is filing a separate claim against each of the defendants. During the assessment process, this led to thirty thousand legal questions. If you can bundle them, there will be three hundred,” says Deryckere.
Last but not least the Court of Appeal must recruit 25 additional magistrates to achieve a real restart. “You will find this easier if the system is already running more smoothly, thanks to the above measures.”
Yard 4: Community Peace
Concerns about the language balance within the top echelons of the Brussels judiciary prevent the filling of some crucial positions, such as that of the new attorney general. There are many nooks and crannies to that story, but in essence it comes down to the question of what is most important. That the successive chiefs of police have different language roles? Or that the chief of police of the public prosecutor’s office has a different language role than the chief of police of the corresponding office?
In concrete terms: the chief of police of the Court of Appeal (seat) is Laurence Massart: French-speaking. At the public prosecutor’s office, after the Dutch-speaking attorney general Johan Delmulle (public prosecutor’s office), it is now the turn of a French-speaking magistrate to become chief of police there. This would leave two French speakers at the top of the Brussels magistracy. For many Dutch speakers that is one no pasarán.
Uncertainty about a possible extension of Massart’s mandate, and the fact that she does not speak Dutch, complicate the matter. “In fact, those two language balances are incompatible anyway if the mandates are not completely identical,” says lawyer Fernand Keuleneer. And they don’t. One chief of police serves a five-year mandate, while his counterpart serves the full ten years. Sooner or later this situation would arise. “And for the Council of State it is clear: the language alternative between the two successive chiefs of police takes precedence,” said Keuleneer.
Vincent Macq, chairman of the French-speaking magistrates’ association UPM, understands the linguistic sensitivities, but thinks a well-functioning justice system, with appointed chiefs of police, is even more important. “And besides, next time there will be two Dutch speakers at the top, right?”
The fact that it is so sensitive among Dutch speakers has to do with a third top position, that of the Brussels public prosecutor, now filled on an interim basis by Tim De Wolf. That position would also go to a French-speaking person. And not for one or two five-year mandates, but forever.
The split of the public prosecutor’s office of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde has something to do with this. The political deal was that Halle-Vilvoorde got a Dutch-speaking prosecutor, and Brussels a French-speaking one. “The Constitutional Court already ruled that this deal is not legal, as Brussels is a bilingual area,” says Quinten Jacobs, constitutional law lawyer. “Someone with a Dutch-speaking diploma should therefore also be given the opportunity to become a prosecutor there.”
According to Jacobs, the federal government’s renewed attempt to reserve that role exclusively for French speakers will therefore not stand up to the Constitutional Court. He advocates a regulation that the Court has previously hinted at: that the prosecutor and deputy prosecutor in Brussels must have a different language role, without imposing that the prosecutor must be a French speaker. “In fact, the elected prosecutor may be a French-speaking one. But excluding a Dutch-speaking person in advance is not possible.”
After the attack a month ago, it turned out that an extradition request for perpetrator Abdesalem Lassoued had literally remained in a cupboard since the summer of 2022. In a video series this week, BRUZZ investigates how that could happen and what is needed to solve the problems within the Justice Department. Watch the first episode online from Tuesday.
On the evening of October 16, a man with an automatic rifle killed two people near Saincteletteplein.