At 1130 this morning, magistrates, clerks and prosecutors across Belgium laid down their pens and went on strike, in protest at the lack of government funding which in some areas is preventing the system from operating properly. In Brussels, protesting law workers gathered in the grand entrance hall of the Justice Palace to hear representatives bemoan the critical state of the sector. Meanwhile justice minister Koen Geens let it be known he would only consider returning to the post following the May elections if the governing parties agree to increase funding.
The list of grievances is long. Buildings, both courts and offices, are crumbling and no longer watertight; the state of equipment is lamentable, one step above quill pens and ink-pots, with magistrates and prosecutors driven to use their own laptops in a world where criminals are armed to the teeth with the latest technology. Cases are delayed interminably, and due to the lack of resources, some offences are simply not prosecuted because the system cannot cope.
In one particular case, the Council of State has been revealed to resort to shortcuts in its work of scrutinising the work of government at all levels, from municipal to federal, because they do not have the staff or resources to do a proper job. Result: your local council, regional government or federal parliament could be passing legislation affecting people’s lives which, in a properly-funded system, would be declared unlawful and either struck down or fundamentally amended.
“The situation has become impossible,” said Vincent Macq, chief prosecutor of Namur and president of the professional union of the magistrature. “We have our backs against the wall. The justice system is dealing with essential democratic responsibilities. We are calling on our future political representatives: We are ready to force this matter onto the electoral agenda.”
On which note, Koen Geens was prepared to stake his political future on achieving a resolution to the problem. According to the minister, the system is short of no less than 750 million euros a year to allow it to function adequately. The current caretaker government is limited in its options, and in any case has only 66 days left of its term.
Geens is setting his sights on the days after the elections. “I understand this action,” he told De Standaard. “I’ve been loyal these past five years, and have fought every inch of the way. But despite an effort to catch up, the challenges remain enormous.”
He declined to say whether his party (CD&V) would make spending on the justice system a condition for governing, but accepted the challenge personally. “At least for me personally, that is a condition for becoming minister of justice again.”
Elsewhere, staff in schools of the Flemish community in Flanders and Brussels are also striking today, in protest at the lack of resources leading to staff shortages in all areas. According to the unions, as many as half of the teachers in primary schools are absent today, with many schools remaining closed as a result.
“Even head teachers are stopping work,” said Koen Van Kerkhoven, secretary-general of the Christian teaching union. “I’ve been getting one signal after another of schools that are closed, also secondary schools and even in the part-time arts education sector. I’m still cautious, but I think we’re heading towards previously unseen strike figures.”