With a new bill, ex-justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne (Open Vld) wants to ensure that from now on, magistrates will not be able to escape so easily if something goes wrong within the Justice Department.
It is one of the sore points in our judiciary that the Van Espen family also emphasizes with ‘Missie Julie/Mission Justice’: the disciplinary liability of magistrates when something goes wrong in the judicial system is very limited. “All judges should be periodically, professionally and independently evaluated, coached and, where necessary, disciplinary sanctioned,” is stated in the objectives of the movement that the Ministry of Justice wants to examine from now on.
With a new bill on the evaluation of magistrates and discipline, ex-Minister of Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne (Open Vld) seems to have already partially addressed this. At the beginning of the summer, he submitted a proposal to amend the law for advice to the Higher Council of Justice, before the terrorist attack and while he was still a minister. “I have been preparing that file in recent months and so I now want to continue working on it as a Member of Parliament,” says Van Quickenborne. “I understand very well that the relatives of Julie Van Espen insist on this, because the liability and evaluation of magistrates is something that urgently needs to be improved.”
‘We know us’
Among other things, the period in which a chief of police – the disciplinary superior of a magistrate – can investigate the actions of judges and prosecutors is extended from 6 to 12 months in the proposal. “In exceptional cases, this can be extended by another six months, without it having to become a sword of Damocles.” According to Van Quickenborne, there will also be more opportunities for private individuals to file complaints and retired judges can also lose their title of honorary magistrate in the event of any mistakes, meaning they can no longer sit on legal committees. If a police chief does not respond to a complaint from a private individual, the Public Prosecution Service can investigate the complaint and possibly submit a file to the disciplinary court. “Given that it is magistrates who appoint chiefs of police, there is a danger of an ‘we-know-us’ atmosphere, which may cause a chief of police to be inclined not to impose sanctions. In a separate circuit – the Public Prosecution Service – you get more objectivity.”
Even if no demonstrable errors have occurred in a particular file, the evaluation of magistrates and the associated consequences must be much stricter, according to Van Quickenborne. “Today this is done through an evaluation committee whereby magistrates who receive an unsatisfactory grade risk, as the highest sanction, a deduction of 6 months from their three-yearly seniority increase. That is of course not a major punishment and I think it means that, for example, no magistrate has received a failing grade in such an evaluation over the past five years. Only if the sanction is a possible dismissal will police chiefs be prepared to initiate such a procedure to get rid of bad apples. If, after a bad evaluation, they have to continue working with the same magistrate who simply sees his salary reduced for 6 months, then they will not do that.”
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Who is Dirk M. (60), the controversial top prosecutor who cost Van Quickenborne his head? “Discredited after a sex scandal, but also a top in his profession” (+)
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