The Belgian civil court system is modelled after the French (Napoleonic) three-tier system, in which a judgment handed down by the lower court may be appealed to a higher court with respect both to questions of law and to questions of fact, and the higher court’s decision is subject to limited review by the Supreme Court.
This diagram does not include the criminal, labour and administrative courts or the constitutional court.
Justices of the peace
There are 187 justices of the peace in Belgium.
As a rule, the justice of the peace has subject matter jurisdiction on all disputes where the amount of the claim is not in excess of €2,500, with the exception of a few disputes that are expressly reserved by law to other courts.
In addition, the justice of the peace has special subject matter jurisdiction, regardless of the amount of the claim, on disputes regarding certain matters, such as disputes with regard to leases, certain family disputes and certain consumer credits.
Courts of first instance
There are 13 courts of first instance in Belgium.
A court of first instance has general jurisdiction on all disputes where the value of the claim is in excess of €2,500. There are a few exceptions to the general subject matter jurisdiction of a court of first instance; some matters are expressly reserved by law to other courts.
In addition, a court of first instance has exclusive jurisdiction on a number of matters, including but not limited to:
- claims for an authorisation to enforce (domestic and foreign) arbitral awards, as well as foreign judgments (except in insolvency matters);
- claims regarding personal status (nationality, paternity and maternity suits, etc);
- claims regarding expropriations for public purposes; and
- claims regarding the application of tax laws.
Claims regarding attachments, garnishment orders, etc, are handled by a specific chamber within a court of first instance: the ‘court of attachments’.
Finally, a court of first instance has appellate jurisdiction with respect to judgments handed down by the justices of the peace established in the court’s district, provided the value of the claim is in excess of €1,860.
Since 1 January 2016 (entry into force of the main provisions of the law of 19 October 2015 reforming certain features of the Belgian civil procedure), cases before a court of first instance are handled by chambers composed of one judge. Chambers may exceptionally be composed of three judges if the complexity or interest of the case as well as specific circumstances so require. Some courts of first instance or of the enterprise (for example, in Brussels or Antwerp) usually set up chambers that specialise in specific matters (construction, contracts, property, bankruptcy, etc).
Three-judge chambers remain the norm before the labour courts and courts of the enterprise in which two lay judges sit with a professional judge.
Courts of the enterprise (formerly courts of commerce)
There are nine courts of the enterprise in Belgium.
Under the Belgian Judicial Code, a court of the enterprise has jurisdiction on all disputes between enterprises (irrespective of the value of the claim), being any person or legal entity pursuing an economic objective on a lasting basis, provided the dispute concerns an act that was carried out in the pursuit of this objective, but except when the dispute belongs to the exclusive jurisdiction of other courts.
In addition, a court of the enterprise has special or exclusive jurisdiction on a wide variety of disputes, including but not limited to disputes regarding corporations (including disputes between shareholders), claims involving insolvency proceedings, and claims in relation to inland and sea shipping.
A court of the enterprise also has exclusive jurisdiction on all disputes between enterprises regarding intellectual property - namely, patents, trademarks and designs, etc. There are a few exceptions to these rules.
Cases before a court of the enterprise are handled by chambers composed of three judges: one professional judge and two lay judges (usually entrepreneurs or bank employees that spend one or two days each month sitting as judges).
Courts of appeal
There are five courts of appeal in Belgium, one each in Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Liège and Mons.
All judgments handed down by a court of first instance or a court of the enterprise can be appealed before a court of appeal, provided the value of the claim is in excess of €2,500. However, there is no second appeal of a decision handed down by a court of first instance on an appeal from the justice of the peace.
A court of appeal also has jurisdiction to certify certain decisions with respect to the utilities market or decisions of bondholders or shareholders in public limited companies.
Since January 2017, chambers specialising in regulated markets (Markets Court) have been created at the court of appeal of Brussels. The Markets Court consists of judges having at least 15 years of professional experience evidencing of a specific knowledge of economic and financial law or regulated markets. The jurisdiction of the Markets Court covers the whole country.
The Supreme Court reviews judgments handed down by the lower courts, provided all appeals have been exhausted. Thus, it reviews judgments against which no appeal can be lodged (namely, when the value of the judgment is less than €1,860 before the justice of the peace, or €2,500 before a court of the enterprise or a court of first instance) and judgments handed down in appeal from the justice of the peace by a court of first instance, as well as judgments handed down by the courts of appeal.
In civil and commercial matters, appeals to the Supreme Court must be filed by one of the 20 lawyers admitted to practise at the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court does not review the facts of the dispute, but only whether the lower court has properly interpreted the law (including treaties and binding supranational regulations and laws), and whether it has complied with formal and procedural rules. As Belgian law provides that judgments must be reasoned and must respond to the parties’ arguments and exhibits, the Supreme Court’s review will extend to ensuring that the lower court’s findings of facts are consistent and not contradictory. In effect, this review entails a limited review of the facts by the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court does not actually settle the dispute but merely confirms the judgment under review, or strikes it down and remands the dispute to another court at the same level of jurisdiction as the court whose judgment was cancelled. Following a legal amendment that entered into force on 3 August 2017, when the Supreme Court decides to strike down a lower court’s decision, it now has a discretionary power not to remand the dispute to another lower court. The Supreme Court should use this power when it finds that there is nothing further to be decided in the dispute. Moreover, if the Supreme Court decides to remand the dispute to a lower court, the latter is now bound to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision.
The Constitutional Court has a dual function: it rules on conflicts between the federal laws and the regional laws; and it rules on the compatibility of these laws with the main provisions of the constitution or of international instruments, including particularly the provisions that guarantee civil liberties and rights.
Two types of claims can be submitted to the Constitutional Court.
An annulment claim can be filed against the laws passed by the federal, regional or community legislatures, within six months from the date of publication of the law in the Official Gazette or of a decision of the Constitutional Court on a preliminary question stating a violation of the above-mentioned rules. The annulment claim can be filed by the Council of Ministers and the governments of the regions and communities, by the chairpersons of all legislative assemblies, or by any natural or legal person who can show that it has a justifiable interest in pursuing the annulment of the law, namely that it will be affected personally by the law in question.
Courts may also (sua sponte or upon the motion of one of the parties) refer a preliminary question to the Constitutional Court when they are in doubt as to the compatibility of a law with the above-mentioned rules.
Council of State - administrative section
Claims against the government and certain administrative bodies regarding the validity of certain decisions or actions taken by the administration (eg, a decision denying an export licence, or adjudicating a public procurement) are subject to the jurisdiction of the Council of State. The Council of State has the authority to suspend and eventually annul the disputed decisions and actions. These claims are brought forth before the Council of State, in accordance with the procedural rules set out in the Laws on the Council of State of 12 January 1973, amended by the Laws of 6 and 19 January 2014. The Council of State may award a compensation to indemnify the harm suffered because of the annulled decision or action. Compensation must also be sought from the civil courts. Once compensation has been claimed before one instance, it is not possible to bring a claim for compensation before another one.
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