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Waiting over a year for divorce: Complaint filed over lack of family court judges

09:54 29/09/2023

Understaffing within the Brussels family courts has led to sharp criticism for Belgian justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne (Open VLD).

About 20 individuals and the League of Families have condemned what they describe as Van Quickenborne’s inaction in the face of the lack of judges and clerks at the French-speaking Family Court in Brussels.

According to some lawyers, “there are currently 19 active chambers for the family court in Brussels, whereas there should normally be 22”.

The lack of judges and clerks to run these courts and hand down judgments has had serious consequences for the handling of child custody cases and divorces in Brussels in recent years.

“The Judicial Code states that when you go to court, you get a hearing within a fortnight – in reality, we sometimes wait several months, even a year, sometimes a little less,” said Nadine Kalamian, a lawyer specialising in family law.

“But that's already a very long time when you have an urgent matter to settle, such as a divorce or child custody, for example, or a change of school following a move or something else.

"Then, once we have access to the judge, the case has to be put in order: we exchange pleadings and evidence and then we wait for a date for the pleadings. This can take up to a year. And then, when the case is pleaded, you can still wait a certain amount of time.”

The legal period calls for a judgement to be handed down within a month, but Kalamian said she had sometimes had to wait a year.

“The judge only has one head and two hands and they have tonnes of files on their desk,” said Kalamian.

“He can't go any faster. It's not a question of laziness, not at all. There just aren't enough of them. And it's not for nothing that many of them are also faced with health problems, burnout and enormous stress.”

The claimants in the Brussels case say they’re simply asking for “respect for the rule of law”.

Belgium has already been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for the slowness of the French-speaking court system in its capital.

In the case brought before the ECHR was an example of a family court matter wherein a couple wishing to divorce in October 2021 had to wait nearly two years for a result.

“The spouses had agreed on the terms and conditions, so the case could have been settled in just a few months,” said Soheila Goossens, a lawyer for the husband.

According to Kalamian, the aim of the new court case is to have the justice minister, and therefore the Belgian State, ordered to pay heavy penalty payments until the backlog of cases in Brussels has been cleared and the time taken to process cases reduced.

“Vincent Van Quickenborne attaches great importance to the proper administration of justice,” his office said in response to the case. “Citizens who have recourse to the family courts must also receive a humane and rapid response.”

His office also stated that an increase in the number of magistrates is currently under way, particularly for the Court of First Instance (of which the family courts are a part), but without giving any figures.

Written by Helen Lyons