An ambitious Action Plan for Belgian Civil Justice

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On 18 March 2015, the Minister of Justice Koen Geens presented his Action Plan for Justice (Plan Justice) to the Belgian Parliament. The Plan starts with a quote from US President Eisenhower: “No battle was ever won according to plan, but no battle was ever won without one”. The Minister considers that an uphill battle has to be fought in order to reach his (ambitious) objective: quality and affordable justice delivered in the year following the introduction of the claim. Thus, numerous reforms of (criminal and) civil procedure are announced, as well as an overhaul of the judiciary.

Regarding civil justice, proposals will first be made to amend civil procedure so as to allow Justice to concentrate on its core tasks and reduce the number of procedures. The objective of these proposals is to decrease the number of appeals, to exclude procedures for which there is already an enforceable title and to decrease the number of proceedings before the county court and the family court. For example, in order to decrease the number of appeals, the suspensive effect of appeal in civil matters will no longer be the principle, save for some exceptions such as divorce. The current system provides that the appeal has suspensive effect, unless the first instance judge orders otherwise. This system will be reversed in the sense that the appeal has no suspensive effect unless the court expressly states so. This should discourage appeals solely made to delay the enforcement of the judgment (Plan for Justice, no 61 p. 28). Secondly, civil procedures will be made simpler and more rational. This includes generalizing single judge decisions, implementing a comprehensive computerization plan, reforming the procedure for uncontested claims and collective debt settlement, limiting the intervention of the prosecutor, etc. Thirdly, various measures will be taken in order to encourage alternative forms of dispute resolution. Finally, the Minister will ensure that civil procedures are affordable and accessible through the reform of legal aid and the promotion of legal protection insurance.

These proposals have been met with scepticism or even criticism from Professor Englebert who posted a detailed analysis only a few days later (“Analyse des aspects “procédure civile” du Plan Justice présenté par le ministre Koen Geens le 18 mars 2015”). The author approves some key changes, such as the one on the suspensive effect of appellate proceedings. However, he believes that several factors accounting for the number of procedures were not taken into account, such as the rising poverty of the Bar or the declining quality of legislation and judicial reasoning. Furthermore, several ideas put forward in the Action Plan have already been implemented in the past without much success (e.g the generalization of single judge decisions introduced in the eighties before the legislator came back on it in the nineties).

It is clear that the ambition of the Minister is to do the same with less. According to the 2015 budget, Justice must save more than 124 million euros (p. 22). The Minister wants to change the schedule of the 2015-2019 savings but not the end result. One consequence is the planned reduction in the number of court buildings. This diminution will probably be severe as the number of court buildings is judged to be ‘very high’ (no 310 p. 94). To put these cuts, and those of other Member States (as far as we can see nearly all of them, if not all), in context, it should be recalled that in the current financial framework (2014-2020), Europe is in the process of transferring almost 90 000 million euros to third States under various headings. Financial programs devoted exclusively to the support of non-European countries (e.g. Development Cooperation Instrument, European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, European neighbourhood Instrument, Guarantee fund for External actions, Humanitarian aid, Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA II), Instrument contributing to stability and peace, Macro-financial assistance) exceed 52500 million euros (http://ec.europa.eu/budget/mff/programmes/index_en.cfm). One needs to add the programs with a dual purpose (that is to say, benefiting both European countries and third countries), and of course the 30 500 million euros from the 11th European Development Fund which has just come into force last month (http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_STATEMENT-15-4518_en.htm; this program benefits for a very small part selected overseas territories of EU Member States). All this makes the EU the largest donor in the world, far ahead of the 1st world economic power (China). Interestingly, the European taxpayer funds the construction of Courts, complete with a full IT suite and a library, in Africa, starting with a State which is not without historical link with Belgium: the Democratic Republic of Congo (Commercial Courts in Butembo, Kananga Boma and Kolwezi). It may give the impression that the European taxpayer closes buildings in Europe and inaugurates them in non-European countries.

(Altalex, 15 June 2015. Article by Emmanuel Guinchard)

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