The Belgian justice system is sitting on more than 10,000 criminal cases that have been dragging on without an outcome for more than 10 years, De Tijd reports.
The news comes after a Brussels court this week ruled that the case against seven former directors of the failed Fortis Bank must be dropped as the charges had run out of time. Some 150 of the shareholders who lost their investment as a result of the collapse have vowed to fight on.
Belgian law has a statute of limitations for a wide variety of offences, setting a limit on the time it takes to bring the case to a conclusion. Once that time limit is passed, the charges fall away and the accused walks free.
The Fortis case dates from 2007, although the charges were initially brought later, in the autumn of 2008.
According to De Tijd, of the more than 10,000 cases still pending after ten years, 8,556 are as old as Fortis, according to a calculation based on figures from 2018 from the College of Prosecutors-General, made up of prosecutors from the court of appeal and answerable only to the minister of justice.
Even worse, 2,650 cases date back to the 1990s, including the fraud case against the textile company Beaulieu from 1990 itself. The prosecution and defence in that case are currently involved in discussions on a financial settlement, and the case is unlikely ever to see the inside of a courtroom.
How many of the ageing cases concern major financial scandals – with victims like the Fortis investors who still suffer the effects of financial ruin – cannot be estimated, according to Brussels advocate-general Christophe Reneison, who heads a network of experts in financial, economic and fiscal crimes.
“It is possible. I couldn’t say,” he told the paper.
“You couldn’t tell from the statistics, because the way in which we code the files at the public prosecution service is mainly intended to help manage them properly.”
But not all financial cases are the same, he said.
“Some are much less important than others. For example, you have companies that have filed a civil party complaint because they feel harmed by another company. That is also classed as a financial case that may have been dragging on for a long time. But that case is of little importance.”
However, despite appearances and bare numbers, the prosecution of major financial crimes has improved over the years since those older case files were first opened.
“If there are delays now, they are no longer due to the prosecution, as was the case in the past,” he said.
“The files are now much better managed by the prosecutor. We are better at weighing up which large cases we want to invest our time in. We then monitor them closely.”