Court of assizes (Belgium)
The court of assizes, (Dutch: hof van assisen, French: cour d'assises, German: Assisenhof) is the trial court which tries the most serious crimes in the judicial system of Belgium. It is the highest Belgian court with criminal jurisdiction. The courts of assizes are not permanent courts; a new court of assizes is assembled for each new trial (see further below). There is a court of assizes in each of the ten provinces of Belgium, and one in the arrondissement of Brussels-Capital (which is not part of any province). Further below, an overview is provided of the eleven courts of assizes and their seats. They are the only courts in Belgium for which the provinces are used as territiorial subdivisions. They are also the only courts that hold jury trials. The trial by jury of certain crimes is laid down in article 150 of the Belgian Constitution. The Belgian courts of assizes are very similar to their French counterparts (cours d'assises).
The organisation of the courts of assizes and the applicable rules of criminal procedure are laid down in the Belgian Judicial Code and the Belgian Code of Criminal Procedure. The language in which the proceedings of the courts of assizes are held depends on the official languages of their province: Dutch for the courts of assizes of Antwerp, Limburg, East Flanders, West Flanders and Flemish Brabant, Dutch and French for the court of assizes of Brussels, French for the courts of assizes of Walloon Brabant, Hainaut, Namur and Luxembourg, and French and German for the court of assizes of Liège. The use of languages in judicial matters is a sensitive topic in Belgium, and is strictly regulated by the law.
A court of assizes is presided over by a counsellor (Dutch: raadsheer, French: conseiller, German: Gerichtsrat) from the court of appeal (judges at the courts of appeal are officially called counsellors), who is assisted by two assessors (Dutch: assessor, French: assesseur, German: Beisitzer), who are judges from the tribunal of first instance. These three judges are appointed to each assizes trial by the (first) president of their respective court or tribunal. They sit together in the form of a panel, lead by the counsellor of the court of appeal. For the sake of readability, the counsellor will be referred to as the 'presiding judge' in this article. In order to distinguish the different ranks of the judges, the two assessors from the tribunal of first instance wear their black court robes with white band, whilst the counsellor from the court of appeal wears a ceremonial court robe that uses the color red in addition to black. The judges are always assisted by a clerk.
The court of assizes is, aside from the three judges, also composed of a jury of twelve people. These twelve jurors (Dutch: gezworene, French: juré, German: Geschworener) are selected at random off the electoral rolls used for the Belgian federal elections. However, a jury may not count more than eight people of the same sex; a jury with less than four men or four women may thus not be sworn in. In order to be sworn in as a juror, one must be aged between 28 and 65, be able to read and write in the language of the trial, not be disqualified from the exercise of civil and political rights by means of a judgement, and not have received a criminal sentence above a certain treshold. Up to twelve alternate jurors can be selected as well. Serving on an assizes jury is considered to be a civic duty; a potential juror may thus not be dismissed from their jury duty without a valid reason.
Since the court of assizes is not a permanent court, there is no public prosecutor's office attached to it. The prosecution of (suspected) offenders is undertaken by the prosecutor-general's office (Dutch: parket-generaal, French: parquet général, German: Generalstaatsanwaltschaft) attached to the court of appeal. The defendant in an assizes trial is referred to as the accused (Dutch: beschuldigde, French: accusé, German: Angeklagter). The accused is required to be assisted by counsel; if they have not picked one, the court will appoint one to them. Any victim in a case can also bring a civil action against the accused in an assizes trial. It is a feature of the Belgian judicial system in general, that courts and tribunals having jurisdiction over criminal cases can also decide on any civil damages sought by a victim (referred to as the civil party). A judgement made by a court of assizes is literally called an 'arrest' (Dutch: arrest, French: arrêt, German: Entscheid) in order to distinguish it from the judgements of lower tribunals; it might also be translated into English as a 'decision' or 'ruling'. For the sake of readability, the term 'judgement' will be used in this article.
The courts of assizes have original jurisdiction over all crimes (Dutch: misdaad, French: crime, German: Verbrechen) that have not been correctionalised. Crimes are the most serious category of crimes under Belgian law (comparable to major felonies); correctionalisation refers to the process which allows for crimes to be tried by the correctional division of a tribunal of first instance instead of a court of assizes. The process of correctionalisation requires the prosecutor to assume the existence of extenuating circumstances. The decision on whether to correctionalise a crime is taken by the counsel chamber (Dutch: raadkamer, French: chambre du conseil, German: Ratskammer) of the tribunal of first instance at the end of a judicial investigation, or during the indictment proceedings before the chamber of indictment (Dutch: kamer van inbeschuldigingstelling, French: chambre des mises en accusation, German: Anklagekammer) of the court of appeal (see further below).
In practice, most crimes except for the most severe ones are correctionalised due to the heavy burden an assizes trial imposes on the judicial system. This heavy burden is caused by, amongst other factors, the fact three judges need to be temporarily discharged from their other duties, the amount of witnesses that are often made to testify, and therefore the long time an assizes trial can last (some high-profile ones can even last for months). This results in the fact that most of the assizes trials held, involve a homicide (murder or manslaughter) or other crimes of a grave nature. In this capacity, some extraordinary crimes against international law, such as genocide or crimes against humanity, are also tried by the courts of assizes.
Political and press crimesEdit
Aside from the most serious crimes, article 150 of the Belgian Constitution also establishes that political crimes and press crimes (except those inspired by racism or xenophobia) have to be tried by a jury. As a result, the courts of assizes have exclusive jurisdiction over these types of crimes. In addition, article 148 of the Belgian Constitution establishes that trials of political and press crimes are held in open court, unless the court and all parties involved agree to hold the trial behind closed doors. However, neither the Constitution or the law provides for a definition of what constitutes a political crime or press crime. As a result, the scope of these terms has historically been interpreted rather restrictively by Belgian courts. Through precedent and legal theory, political crimes can be defined as crimes that, by their intention and their effect, constitute a direct attack on the functioning of the institutions of the state. In the same way, press crimes can be defined as the expression, in print or by similar means, of an idea or opinion that breaches the law, as long as the print in question is effectively published.
Unlike for trials before the police tribunals and tribunals of first instance, no-one may be prosecuted before a court of assizes without a prior indictment (Dutch: inbeschuldigingstelling, French: mise en accusation, German: Versetzung in den Anklagezustand) by the chamber of indictment of the court of appeal. This indictment can be obtained after a judicial investigation conducted by an investigative judge of the tribunal of first instance. Such judicial investigations are overseen be the counsel chamber, which is chaired by another judge of the tribunal of first instance. If the counsel chamber decides at the end of such a judicial investigation that there are sufficient indications of guilt of a crime that should not be correctionalised (see earlier), it will send the case to the chamber of indictment, which is chaired by a panel of three counsellors of the court of appeal. If the chamber of indictment decides as well that there exist sufficient indications of guilt, and that the suspected crime should not be correctionalised, it will deliver an indictment for an assizes trial. The decision made by the chamber of indictment in this capacity is final except for an appeal in cassation. A court of assizes will then be assembled to hold the trial, except when in the case of cassation proceedings the Court of Cassation quashes the indictment. Once the decision is made to hold an assizes trial, the prosecutor-general (Dutch: procureur-generaal, French: procureur général, German: Generalprokurator) who will prosecute the accused, is required to draw up an act of accusation (Dutch: akte van beschuldiging, French: acte d'accusation, German: Anklageschrift), which describes the criminal charges brought against the accused.
Before the start of the assizes trial, the presiding judge holds a preliminary hearing with the accused and the civil parties (or their counsel). During this preliminary hearing, the presiding judge will decide on the witnesses that will testify during the trial, and in which order and on which date their testimony will be scheduled. The prosecutor-general, the accused, and any civil party may propose witnesses to be heard. They will either testify as to facts and guilt, either as to the morality and character of the accused, or as to both. The presiding judge may refuse any witness proposed if their testimony appears to be trivial and useless to the trial. In any case, the testimony of the police officers who made the first observations in the case, as well as that of the police officers who investigated the morality and the character of the accused, must always be heard.
Appeal in cassationEdit
List of courts of assizesEdit
As of 2018, the court of assizes of each of the Belgian provinces (and Brussels-Capital) has its seat in the following municipalities:
- "Hof van assisen" [Court of assizes]. www.rechtbanken-tribunaux.be (in Dutch). College of the courts and tribunals of Belgium. Retrieved 17 May 2019.
- "Judiciary – Organization" (PDF). www.dekamer.be. Parliamentary information sheet № 22.00. Belgian Chamber of Representatives. 1 June 2014. Retrieved 17 May 2019.
- "Judiciary – Breakdown of law" (PDF). www.dekamer.be. Parliamentary information sheet № 21.00. Belgian Chamber of Representatives. 26 June 2014. Retrieved 17 May 2019.
- Lenaerts, Nathalie; promotor: Prof. Roe; assessor: De Cock, R. "Mediaverslaggeving en de toegekende strafmaat: een verband? (thesis)" (pdf). Faculty of Social Sciences, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Retrieved 2007-08-19.
- "Overview of the Belgian Law (implied title)" (doc). Circle of the Criminological Sciences department, Faculty of Law, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Retrieved 2007-08-19.