Lawyer Walter Van Steenbrugge has been found guilty by a court in Ghent of libel of the head of the religious charity the Brothers of Charity during the trial of three doctors involved in a case of euthanasia.
Tine Nys, then aged 38, had her request for euthanasia approved and carried out in 2010, on the grounds of psychological suffering. Her sisters contested the decision, arguing that the proper procedures laid down by the law had not been properly carried out.
A court in Dendermonde first refused to press charges against the doctors concerned, one of whom had actually carried out the procedure, but that verdict was overturned in 2018 by a court in Ghent, which sent the three doctors for trial at the assizes court.
Van Steenbrugge, one of the country’s most prominent trial lawyers, was representing the doctor who carried out the procedure. He petitioned the court for René Stockman, head of the strictly Catholic Brothers of Charity, to be called as a witness.
The reason: his client had heard from a doctor friend that Stockman had made approaches to the Ghent prosecution service intended to convince them to prosecute. Van Steenbrugge took the unusual step of writing a letter to the federal parliament asking them to investigate a possibly improper attempt to influence the law.
He also aired his misgivings on VTM News, leading Stockman to sue for libel.
Now a court in Ghent has upheld the complaint, which carries a possible penalty of one year in prison.
Van Steenbrugge’s own lawyer protested.
“It is not possible that a lawyer should have to appear in court because he has done his work in and out of court,” said Nico Meijering.
“My client had information from three sources that [Stockman] had intervened, but he never presented that as fact.”
And he accused the prosecutor’s office of seeking revenge for losing the landmark case.
“For my client, the damage to his reputation is great. How many clients are no longer going to engage him now that Mr. Stockman has branded him a slanderer? An attempt has been made to silence my client. I am asking for a signal that this is not permissible. Convicting a lawyer for assisting his client will affect any criminal defence deeply.”
In the original trial, two of the doctors involved were found clearly not guilty of manslaughter by the jury. In the case of the third, who had carried out the procedure and was represented by Van Steenbrugge, the jury expressed some doubt as to whether the correct procedure had been followed.
As the law requires, the bench considered that reasonable doubt acts in the favour of the accused, and he too was acquitted.