Justice: New rules planned on time-limits on prosecutions

Justice: New rules planned on time-limits on prosecutions
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne. Credit: Belga

The existing rules on declaring a criminal investigation out of time are to be changed to extend the deadlines, federal justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne has said.

At present in Belgium, most if not all crimes and offences, up to and including the most serious, are subject to time limits, after the expiry of which prosecutions may no longer take place.

The rule is intended to prevent the authorities from pursuing a case against an accused person without any limit of time, thereby keeping the accused person under threat of prosecution interminably without ever having the opportunity to clear their case.

Instead, the authorities have a limited amount of time to bring their case to court for judgement, after which charges must be dropped. The principle is that this presents the legal authorities with a measure of discipline which helps prevent the threat of prosecution from becoming a measure of oppression without the possibility of relief before a court.

At the same time, however, some cases are so involved and so complicated that a normal investigative timetable is not available, and the danger is that such cases may never reach a judicial resolution either in favour of the accused or otherwise.

At present, the terms for the prosecution of offences vary according to the gravity of the matter: six months for minor offences, dating from the time of commission of the offence; five years for more serious offences; up to 20 years for the most serious crimes and offences.

Into that latter category fall the activities of the Brabant Killers, who carried out a number of murderous attacks in the 1980s in Belgium, but who despite an encyclopedic collection of evidence, have still to be brought to justice.

The case is not an exception, and Van Quickenborne has made it clear that the Brabant Killers case is a main part of his reasoning for the reform of the law. In that case, which culminated in the 1980s, a number of raids took place on supermarkets in which at least eight people were killed. Since that final assault took place in 1985, in normal circumstances the case would expire in 2025. That deadline can be adjusted, but only if the case is launched anew within the delay required. The new law would remove that urgency.

Van Quickenborne’s plans are not the first time the goalposts have been moved in the case of the Brabant Killers. In 2015 his predecessor Koen Geens (CD&V) prolonged the term for expiry from 15 to 20 years, with this case specifically in mind.

Van Quickenborne is unlikely to have it all his own way, however. His proposals have to be approved by parliament, whatever they may be, and he is not going to be presented with a blank cheque.

One likelihood is that the law will apply changes in the investigative phase, but no longer in the presentation phase. In other words, the authorities will have longer to investigate their case, but once they have done so, the case must be brought before a court as soon as possible.

Given the history of the Brabant Killers’ case, it is hard to see how any reasonable deadline for investigation has not already been exceeded.

Van Quickenborne will present his proposal in due course, but he is unlikely to be welcomed without opposition. If the authorities have a case, they must present it, the rules of jurisprudence insist. Even in the most serious of cases, the accused person must be allowed to face their accusers in court, and if possible, to present their defence. Anything less, is not what we normally refer to as justice.

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