Chapter 17 - The Administration of Justice

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THE laws of Belgium are contained in a collection called the "Codes Beiges." They are a sort of grafting of the old laws of the Nine Provinces on the Code Napoleon which was effected under the charge of a special commission, appointed after the establishment of national rule. The commission completed its labors in the year 1835, when the Codes were published. Of course, many new laws have been added since, but the principles laid down in the first statutebook have never been departed from. For instance, capital punishment remains on the statute, and murderers are still sentenced to death in Belgian courts, although no one has been executed for over half a century.

We are rather given to say in this country that everything is decided by precedent, but in Belgium the adherence to rule is even more strict. The highest of all the Courts in Belgium, that is the Cour de Cassation, has indeed no other role than to supervise judgments, and see how far they conform with the principles and penalties laid down in the Code. Only when a Minister of State has to be tried is the Cour de Cassation used as a Court of open trial. This Court consists of only one judge, who has under him a body of revisors, and the President of the Court enjoys the position of being the best-paid judge in Belgium, with a salary of $4,000 per annum. The salaries of the judges is evidence of the low scale on which salaries run in Belgium. A Judge of Appeal gets $2,000 a year. A Juge de Paix, of whom there are 222 in the country, receives from $800 to $1,100 per annum.

For civil justice there are three Appeal Courts or groups of courts in the country. They are at Brussels, Ghent, and Liege respectively, and dependent on these are the Juge de Paix courts, each of which marks a canton. Reporting to the Brussels Courts are eightythree cantons, to Ghent sixty-five, and to Liege seventy-four. Immediately under the three Appeal Courts are the Courts of First Instance, in which all civil cases are heard before they can be carried to the Appeal Courts. Statistics show that about one case in eight reaches the Appeal Court. These Courts of First Instance are to be found in all the towns of importance and number twenty-six for the whole kingdom. They are supplemented by tribunals of commerce in Antwerp, Ghent, and Liege. In 1908 there were 517 commercial failures and 390 distraints of goods.

In the last-mentioned cases the object of the Juge de Paix is to arrange the matter to the satisfaction of everybody, and this explains why 80 per cent of the cases are settled without a formal judgment being given. Criminal cases are tried before three orders of courts - Assize, Correctional, and Police Courts.

Here again the same desire to inflict moderate penalties and thus to prevent bad blood between the accusers, the accused, and their relations may be discovered in the large number of fines imposed, which in the police courts rarely exceed one dollar. There has been a marked diminution in the amount of crime in Belgium. Sixty years ago the average number of persons sentenced to death was forty in each year, and they were executed into the bargain. Today the extreme cases average five a year, but it must be remembered that commutation in these instances does not mean to ordinary imprisonment for life, but to perpetual seclusion and silence.

There are two classes of prisons, distinguished as central and secondary. In the former, the principal of which are at Louvain and Ghent, the number of prisoners of both sexes undergoing a term of imprisonment at the end of 1908 was 734. It is not at all easy to analyze the returns of the secondary prisons through which the great majority pass in and out every few days. The average population on any day in 1908 is given at 3,797 men and 378 women. About 140 boys and girls were detained in reformatories, and there are agricultural colonies for those who are deemed reclaimable. The most noteworthy of these establishments is at Merxplas in the north of Belgium, where the detained, some 2,000 in number, are allowed their liberty within a certain area.

There are two institutions in Belgium of a quasijudicial character that claim mention. They are the "Depots de Mendicite" and the "Maisons de Refuge." The distinction is one well worth imitating in this country. The "Maisons de Refuge" are shelters provided for the really deserving poor and "out of work," who through no fault of their own have no home to sleep in, and are in danger of starvation. There is no legal disadvantage or penalty in the eyes of the law in having been the inmate of a "Maison de Refuge." It is for "the wrecks of the high road" and those who have gone under in the battle of life.

It is otherwise with the "Depots de Mendicite," which are the receptacles for the professional and worthless beggar, the man who has made his livelihood out of begging. The official definition of those consigned to a depot is "able-bodied individuals who instead of working for their sustenance seek the aid of the charitable as professional beggars, or those who through laziness, drunkenness, and debauchery live in a condition of vagabondage." Felons sentenced to less than a year's imprisonment may on release from prison be consigned to a depot. In plain English the Belgian law differentiates clearly between those in need and those who beg through laziness and aversion to work. The average daily population of the depots was 5,421 in 1908, and of the Maisons de Refuge 1,279. The student who wishes to compare the social condition of different countries may profitably study the returns of our workhouse population in contrast with these figures.

The judges are chosen from the members of the bar, who are called "avocats" or barristers. They are appointed by the King, are practically irremovable, but in cases of misconduct or mental incapacity can be deprived of their office by the unanimous vote of their brother judges. Such a case does not appear to have arisen.

Barristers are recruited from students who have taken the degree of Doctor of Laws at one of the universities, and who then notify their intention to plead in the courts. The fees for admission to the bar are little more than nominal. Barristers do not work in the Juge de Paix Courts. Their principal practice is in the Appeal Courts and the Tribunaux de Commerce. On the criminal side they appear in the Assize and Correctional Courts alone. The fees are small, but the leaders in the Appeal Courts receive payments approximating to our own scale. One of the best-paid posts open to the bar is that of Procureur du Roi, that is, Crown Prosecutor, and as the work is heavy and the holder of the substantial appointment may be otherwise engaged, he has the right to name a substitute among his brother barristers. To simplify the transaction of business a list is kept at each court of barristers eligible to act as Procureurs du Roi.

Although a barrister may be instructed by his client direct, and it is usual to do so, there are also solicitors in Belgium. They are called avoues. They must have taken a degree in law at one of the universities, and obtained a diploma authorizing them to practice their profession. It is not very easy to understand how the avoue obtains a sufficiency of work, seeing that the most profitable functions of the profession are discharged by the "notaire." This may explain why there are so few avoues and these only in the most important cities.

But the notaire is everywhere. He is the indispensable man of business, through whom every one in Belgium possessing any property at all transacts his or her affairs. His public duties consist exclusively of receiving and confirming affidavits. To that extent he is a Commissioner of Oaths; the civil marriage is also performed in his presence at the Hotel de Ville, or the Maison Communale. But the bulk of his work is done as agent or representative for his clients, and it is very profitable work, the general opinion being that a notaire ought to make a fair retiring fortune in twenty years. Many decayed estates among the provincial noblesse have been restored by marriage with the daughter of a notaire.

The notaire is also the man of business. All sales and purchases of estates and house property are effected through him. He generally keeps the family deeds and securities, and as branches of banks are very rare in Belgium, he is to a large extent the local banker, always it must be understood for his clients alone and not for the public at large. While the notaire discharges certain legal business, he is not a man of the law, and holds no legal degree or other qualification. He is a man of business and finance. It is not easy to ascertain the exact number of notaires, but there is at least one for each canton, and in great cities there are, of course, as many as think they can find a living. As a rule, a Belgian will only go to law after he has first consulted his notaire on the subject at issue. The notaires as a body are highly honorable men, but sometimes the handling of their clients' money induces them to speculate on the bourse, and when they come to grief there is almost as much suffering as arises from the failure of a savings bank here.

The machinery of the law in Belgium for civil actions is simple and far from costly to put in motion. The number of cases entered also proves that the people are by no means averse to litigation, and for some time past complaints have been rife as to the law's delay. The large number of cases not reached at the end of each year is proof that the courts are overworked. This result is tending to diminish the eagerness formerly shown in going to law, and much of the work that now falls on avocats and avoues is done in attempting to arrive at settlements out of court. The only court which shows an increasing amount of business is the divorce court. In Belgium, civil marriage being the legal one, the courts can dissolve the marriage tie without the intervention of the Church.

On the criminal side of justice the tendency is to minimize rather than exaggerate the gravity of an offense. This remark does not apply to the old offender, and it may even be held that he does not get much consideration. To have offended once against the law is regarded almost as proof positive of guilt in regard to any fresh charge. In Belgium every citizen is on the register of the Etat Civil at the Hotel de Ville of a city, or the Maison Communale of a commune. In addition to this registration all persons employed in domestic service or in shops and restaurants are supplied by the police with a little book called indifferently "livret" or "carnet," in which not merely their names and family history are given, but also all changes of employment. These books have to be shown at the postoffice with each change of place, and as the last employer inscribes the reason for leaving, there is a complete history of the individual's life with information as to his or her character. In any dispute or trouble with an employee, the very first question the police agent asks is, "Give me your livret." The servant has a bad time and will be certainly fined if neglect has been shown in keeping up the record.

The agents de police, who are only to be found in the great cities, are an admirable body of men, and if we omit the qualification of regulating street traffic, in which they have no experience, need not fear comparison with any other civil force in the world. They carry a small sword in a leather sheath, but it is very rarely drawn, practically speaking never in the daytime save on the occasion of Socialist disorders. At night they also carry a revolver, but except in notoriously bad quarters, like the rue Haute in Brussels, armed collisions rarely occur. As all foreigners have to notify their presence in Belgium through their landlords to the police, it naturally follows that criminals from other countries try to evade this regulation, and resort to possible devices for the purpose.

The police have an ingenious way of running down these evaders of the law. The agents report from their several beats that they have noticed some suspicious-looking persons about whom they did not know by sight. Note is made of the fact at the central bureau, and about the same time information comes, generally from Paris or Lille, that some notorious criminals have disappeared from those places. Thereupon the Brussels police organize a night hunt (it is called a "rafle" or "sweeping off') and in the small hours of the morning they descend upon the drinking and sleeping places favored by the thieving fraternity, and arrest all those whose papers are not in order, or who, in the case of foreigners, have not a "permis de sejour." In this way many criminals are traced who were not known to be in the country.

The agent de police is just as popular with all lawabiding citizens in Belgium as the police are with us, and this is the best proof that he does not abuse his authority. He never thinks of interfering with the respectable citizen whom he seems to appraise intuitively, but he has the eyes of a lynx for a member of the criminal classes. I have seen instances of this in the park at Brussels, where a great crowd assembles in summer afternoons to hear the music. Hundreds of people will be seated on the chairs under the shade of the trees behind which on a raised terrace is the bandstand. A solitary agent walks up the gravel path at a fair pace. One would imagine his thoughts were with his family and not his work, when suddenly he slackens his pace, looks fixedly at one of the seats, and just raises his little finger. A woman gets up shamefacedly and walks out of the park. She is a well-known pickpocket, let us say, but perhaps no one else has seen the occurrence. The Brussels "agent" has a fine "flair" for his professional duty, and is very much to be admired in his simple uniform of black broadcloth and smart kepi.

Source: Boulger, Demetrius C. Belgium. Detroit: Published for the Bay View Reading Club, 1913. Print.

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