Civil proceedings are initiated in Belgium by serving a summary statement of claim through a bailiff on the defendant. The costs depend on the number of pages of the summons and usually amount to approximately €500.
The costs may be increased by necessary translation costs if the court language at the place of service differs from the court language of the competent court. In Belgium, with its three official languages, the so-called language act of 1935 applies, which must be observed. This also applies to documents and case law that are relevant to understanding the dispute. These must be translated.
Prior to service, the judicial officer will contact the court registry to set a date for the so-called introductory meeting. This usually takes place approximately three weeks after the date of the summons.
The defendant’s lawyer will indicate his cooperation to the court. For the purpose of agreeing the so-called deadline calendar, he contacts the opposing counsel and asks him to send him his inventory. These are the relevant documents that substantiate the claim. If the other lawyer has only been appointed shortly before the date of the introductory meeting or if the documents are not received in time, the lawyer of the defendant is entitled to an adjournment of the introductory meeting under professional ethics. This is (unfortunately) often used.
In the vast majority of cases, the sole purpose of the introductory meeting is for the parties to the proceedings to record by mutual agreement, in the rare case of the absence replaced by instructions of the court, the respective deadlines within which the statements are to be filed with the court and sent to the other party. Often, however, the requests in the summons contain a reference to Art. 735 of the Belgian Code of Civil Procedure, according to which it is a simple matter that can be pleaded in the introductory session. However, this provision is rarely applied. These are cases in which a legal defense already obviously does not make sense, for example, if the purchase price is not paid after delivery of a good, even though, for example, there is no notification of a defect as required by Art. 38, 39 of the UN Sales Convention. As a rule, however, it is not necessary to make a substantive statement in the introductory session.
After service of the so-called deadline calendar, the parties then exchange the respective pleadings, whereby each party is in principle entitled to two statements. The defendant party deposits the last written statement. The court will only take into account the last written statement of each of the parties. This makes Belgian proceedings more complex than German proceedings, because not only must the other party’s new submissions be responded to, but their arguments must be incorporated into the original pleading and replied to, while the pleading must still remain intelligible to the judge.
The matter is then pleaded in an oral hearing. Due to the tradition of the Code Civil, judges are usually little or not at all prepared. The essential first contact with the dispute is made by the pleading, during which the lawyers present the content of their pleadings. As a rule, no new arguments may be presented. A legal discussion does not take place. The court also is not authorized to give evidence.
The court then issues a judgment, which is either a final judgment, reopens the oral proceedings if the court considers that there is still a need to present the facts of the case or the legal assessment, or orders the taking of evidence, for example by obtaining an expert opinion.
Judgments may be appealed against on appeal. This is done by means of an application to be filed with the court against payment of a fee of 210 €. The procedure is otherwise identical to the procedure at first instance.
New facts may be presented in the appellate instance in the light of the first-instance decision. The appeal period is ten years, but is reduced to one month if the judgment has been served by one of the parties. Before service, the winning party asks the losing party to inform the other party whether it accepts the judgment or whether it intends to appeal. In the former case, the winning party is requested to comply with the operative part of the judgment in a timely manner, in the latter case the parties agree on a date by which an appeal must be lodged. If this does not take place, the party entitled to do so may, after expressly informing the opposing counsel again, arrange for service and subsequently, after further notification, for enforcement. This collegial approach avoids unnecessary service costs.
The prevailing party is entitled to reimbursement of the so-called legal costs and the costs of service if he was the plaintiff. The reimbursement of legal costs is determined by the court on the basis of a royal decree which contains minimum, basic and maximum rates depending on the value in dispute (http://www.droitbelge.be/news_detail.asp?id=864). As a rule, the basic amount is awarded. The costs of legal representation, usually on the basis of a time-based fee, are not decisive for the amount of the legal fees. For example, if the action is dismissed as inadmissible, despite the fact that the parties must also present the substantive legal situation and the merits of the case as a precaution, only the minimum rate is awarded, which is then often disproportionate to the actual legal fees incurred.
Belgian civil proceedings generally last at least two years, and in the French-speaking jurisdiction of Brussels, they sometimes take considerably longer.