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Break a law in a Dutch-speaking neighbourhood? Then stand trial in Dutch, says N-VA

09:37 05/01/2023

Members of the N-VA party are calling for legislation that would require those who stand trial for breaking a law in a Dutch-speaking neighbourhood to do so in the Dutch language.

One reason for an adaptation on the use of languages is that requesting for a change in the language used in court proceedings from Dutch to French leads to a huge backlog of cases, according to Flemish MP Jeroen Tiebout.

The problem is particularly prevalent in the Halle-Vilvoorde judicial zone, which covers the bilingual Brussels-Capital region and 35 officially Dutch-speaking communes in Brussels' immediate suburbs.

Under the current rules, anyone charged with a crime committed at, for example, Brussels Airport, in Dutch-speaking Zaventem, or a few metres from Brussels Expo, in Dutch-speaking Strombeek-Bever, can ask to be tried in French.

In a joint statement with fellow MP Wouter Raskin, he points to a mounting number of cases involving Brussels' suburbs.

“Anyone who breaks the law in Flanders must be tried in Dutch,” the statement reads. “The location of the offence should determine the language of the proceedings.”

Tiebout and Raskin say that current language legislation leads to “irresponsible delays” in the judicial process.

“For example, drug addicts who need to be taken off the street immediately can keep their driving licence for many months if they apply for a language change,” the pair explained in a statement.

“The whole file then has to be translated first, or it moves to a French-speaking court with a lengthy legal backlog. In practice, this creates absurd situations and even life-threatening situations. It is incomprehensible that a drug-addicted driver from the Halle-Vilvoorde judicial region is allowed to continue driving around until the French-speaking court finds time to deal with the case.”

They point to a recent ruling from the Belgian Constitutional Court that confirmed there should be no discrimination between a French speaker applying for a language change and a non-native speaker (for example, a Romanian) who has to make do with an interpreter.

Because it takes a long time to fully translate a file and because French-speaking courts have an even longer legal backlog than the Dutch-speaking ones, requests for language changes can mean many months of delay that the N-VA says are “completely unnecessary and avoidable”.

Criminals who are not fit to drive, according to the judgement of a traffic expert, can keep driving throughout these months of delays.

“Explain that to the many relatives of traffic victims,” Tiebout and Raskin said.

The two are calling for urgent action, citing the Halle-Vilvoorde neighbourhood as a particularly problematic area when it comes to cases of reckless drivers being able to keep their licences due to the dragging out of court proceedings for language reasons that they say are arbitrary.

Halle-Vilvoorde public prosecutor Ine Van Wymersch expressed agreement in an interview on Radio 1: “We see in the field, in the police court, that people who understand Dutch perfectly during their interrogation suddenly forget it during the hearing and ask for a change of language.”

Wymersch estimated that a language-change request is made in about half of all cases.

“For people whose mother tongue is not Dutch, the public prosecutor's office provides an interpreter and that is sufficient,” said Wymersch.

To amend the language law to officially consider an interpreter sufficient, instead of translating the whole file into French, a two-thirds majority is needed in parliament. Tiebout and Raskin are hoping this can be achieved.

“It now happens that life-threatening drivers walk out of court without a single measure being pronounced to immediately protect other road users,” the MPs said.

“This is completely absurd, especially when you know that in some cases the courts are actually obliged to pronounce measures, but cannot do so until the entire file has been translated into French.”

They also pointed out that Flemish people who are tried for offences committed in Wallonia do so in French.

“Conversely, French speakers must also accept that a court in Flanders will judge them in Dutch and can immediately deprive them of a driving licence in Dutch.”

Written by Helen Lyons