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Lack of judges causing huge delays in Brussels courts
Judges in Brussels courts are overwhelmed and overworked to the point that some cases are taking up to six times longer to conclude.
Whether for structural or cyclical reasons, litigants face increasingly short hearings which are increasingly postponed to a later date as the judges struggle to wade through the number of cases. It is a Sisyphean task with judges describing their workload as “heavy, large, huge”. For many their job is a vocation, a mission and so there is no other choice but to try to cope as best they can.
Pierre Vanhove, a judge at the Brussels Correctional Court, uses the metaphor of surfing to explain his daily life. "A judge is a constant surfer,” he says. “Every time he has rode one wave, he has to pay attention to the next that arrives the following week. If you don’t hold on to your board, at some point you will be drowned."
First, there is a structural explanation for this workload. It is a purely an issue of numbers. At the French-speaking court of first instance in Brussels, the legal framework provides for 126 judges in the civil, correctional, family and youth courts. In fact, there are only 106. As a result, 20 judges are missing to deal with all cases. This results in more work for the judges who are in office.
In the Correctional Court, in 2015, there were 3,500 cases. In 2019, this figure almost doubled to 6,200. The number of magistrates, on the other hand, has remained constant.
Then there are cyclical and specific phenomena in Brussels, according to Sophie Van Bree, a judge since 2002 and spokesperson for the French-speaking court of first instance in Brussels. "There are a whole series of major trials that have taken place or are going to take place in Brussels like the climate case against the Belgian state, or the trial of those accused of the March 2016 terror attacks. In these cases, three magistrates are called to sit for maybe up to three months on a single case. Meanwhile, their chamber must continue to function, but without them, with judges who replace them at short notice," the magistrate said.
Another cyclical element is the health crisis. It weighs heavily on hearings, particularly in the family court and youth court. With successive stay-at-home periods, cases have multiplied for issues from within the home such as domestic violence, as have requests for separation and divorce.
Some of these cases are considered urgent. For example, a divorce file in which it is necessary to decide on the well-being of the children involved. Marie Brooke, a family court judge, revelas that delays are becoming intolerable: "We are theoretically obliged to resolve these cases within 15 days because it has a huge impact on people's lives. Currently, we have delays of up to three months. We find that absolutely unacceptable."
Again, these delays can be attributed to lack of numbers. At the Brussels Family Court, 20 judges are needed. There are currently 18 of them and this figure will be reduced by one at the end of May with the departure of one of its judges to another court.
One of the victims of this work overload is obviously the citizen. "The litigant wants access to the judge, and they can have a lot of expectations,” says Marie Brooke. “But the workload is such that we don't have a lot of time to listen to them. This has an impact on the time that can be devoted to the case at the hearing, on the deliberation time, on the quality of the deliberation."
The same is true at the Brussels Criminal Court. To maintain a certain quality of work, many cases need to be deferred. Julie Feld has been a judge in this court since 2019. On one particular day, she may have as many as 19 cases on her schedule. She knows in advance that she will only be able to handle five or six of them. "It is obvious that we can only do what is humanly feasible,” she says. “So yes, it is unfortunate when you hand over a file and the parties are present. But it is not possible otherwise. You can't hold a hearing until 23.00 to be able to deal with the shortage of magistrates."
Most citizens don’t understand the work that goes on beyond the hearing itself. Their understanding is the visible part of the job, the sitting judge in the court room, hearing the case. But the judges must review the files before the hearing begins, and sometimes further research is required. After the hearing, the judgments must be written up as accurately as possible to prevent them from being challenged or subjected to appeal.
It is therefore almost normal to postpone cases. Sometimes a date is set for a new hearing, sometimes this is not possible. "It can happen that cases can simply be put in a cupboard until there is space and time for hearings to resolve them," laments family judge Marie Brooke.
Some cases take priority and must be addressed in hearings according to the broad justice guidelines that are set at the college of courts and tribunals. These include cases of serious sexual assault and, currently, offences related to anti-COVID measures. Judges themselves can determine which cases in these instances take priority over others.
In an attempt to boost the numbers of judges and to get cases moving, Justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne plans to address the problem of understaffing by issuing calls for applications. These are expected to happen this summer.
The minister also proposes that magistrates extend their careers and keep working as acting judges until they are 75 years. In addition, an additional €125 million will be assigned to strengthen justice in 2021. This will reach €250 million in 2024 as stipulated in the government agreement.