What is a Court of Assizes?
The court of assizes is composed of the court and a jury. The court and the jury together form the panel.
The court of assizes tries crimes that cannot be commuted/reduced to offences/misdemeanors (“correctionnalisés/gecorrectionaliseerd”) or have not been commuted/reduced to offences/misdemeanors. The Constitution considers that the trial of the most serious crimes should be entrusted to persons from civil society.
I. The seat
1. The court
The court is composed of three professional judges, namely a president, a member of the court of appeal, and two assessors, judges at the court of first instance.
2. The jury
The jury is composed of twelve jurors. The court of assizes may also draw lots for substitute jurors to attend the proceedings.
No more than two-thirds of the members of the jury shall be of the same gender, i.e. no more than eight men or eight women.
The jurors and their substitutes must take the oath provided for in Article 290 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, by which they become judges, for the entire duration of the session of the court of assizes.
This oath implies the following duties:
o to judge impartially,
o to judge scrupulously,
o not to communicate his/her opinion outside the group, either in public or in private,
o base its decision only on the evidence and defence presented in open court, taking into account the interests of the accused, the civil parties and society.
3. The clerk’s office
The court of assizes is assisted by one or more clerks from the clerk’s office of the court of first instance.
II. The parties to the proceedings
1. The Public Prosecutor's Office
The Public Prosecutor's Office is represented by a magistrate from the General Prosecutor's Office or the Federal Prosecutor's Office, depending on the nature of the case.
For the trial of the attacks of 22 March 2016, magistrates from the federal public prosecutor's office represent the public prosecutor. There will be three of them, but this number may change. They are interchangeable because they are 'one and indivisible'. The public prosecutor represents the society and supports the prosecution. The prosecutor presents the charges that he/she believes exist against the accused in court and demands the law to be applied.
2. The accused
Before the court of assizes, the accused must be assisted by a lawyer.
The accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law. The presumption of innocence of an accused person is enshrined in Article 6.2 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
3. The civil party
A victim of the facts of the case may file a civil suit/constitute herself/himself as civil party before the court of assizes until the end of the debates.
III. The trial
The court of assizes sits in three hearing sessions, namely in :
o the preliminary hearing
o the jury composition hearing
o the hearing on the merits.
At the preliminary hearing, the president of the court of assizes sits alone. The accused and the civil parties are summoned by the public prosecutor or the federal public prosecutor.
The purpose of the preliminary hearing, prior to the hearing on the merits, is to determine the list of witnesses who will testify at the hearing on the merits and their order of appearance. It is also at the preliminary hearing that the parties may raise grounds for the nullity or inadmissibility or extinction of the public prosecution. For the trial of the attacks of 22 March 2016, the preliminary hearing is scheduled on Monday 12 September 2022 at 9 am.
At the jury composition hearing, the president of the court of assizes sits with the two judge assessors.
To be on the list of jurors, you must be registered on the list of electors, enjoy your civil and political rights, be at least 28 years old and under 65 years old, be able to read and write, and not have been convicted of any criminal offence and sentenced to more than four months' imprisonment, or to electronic surveillance for more than four months, or to a sentence of more than 60 hours' work, or to a sentence of one year's independent probation.
The president of the court of assizes first decides on the requests for exemption that may be submitted by the candidate jurors. The names of the jurors present and not exempted are then placed in a ballot box and the president of the court of assizes draws lots for the jurors, one by one.
The accused and the prosecutor have the right to challenge an equal number of jurors. The civil party has no right of challenge. The grounds for challenge may not be communicated.
The jury must be constituted at least 2 days before the hearing on the merits.
For the trial of the attacks of 22 March 2016, the jury composition hearing is scheduled on Monday 10 October 2022 at 9 am.
The hearing on the merits
For the trial of the attacks of 22 March 2016, the hearing on the merits starts on Thursday 13 October 2022 at 9am. It will continue until the end of the debates, over several months, depending on the requirements of the case.
The hearing starts with the reading (in part or in full) of the indictment by the prosecutor and of the statement of defence, if any, by the accused or his counsel.
The president then proceeds with the interrogation of the accused.
As the procedure in the Assize Court is oral, the hearing of witnesses (investigating judge, investigating police officers, fact witnesses, character witnesses) and experts, according to the list drawn up during the preliminary hearing, then constitutes the substantial part of the hearing.
After the hearing of witnesses and experts, the hearing is dedicated to the closing arguments of the public prosecutor (in this case the federal prosecutor) and the pleadings of the civil parties and the accused. The last word is always given to the accused.
At the end of the debates, the president of the court of assizes reads out the questions that the jury will have to answer to pronounce themselves on the guilt or absence thereof.
There are two types of questions:
o the question on the main fact, that is asked in the following terms: Is the accused guilty of having committed such a crime?
o the question on aggravating circumstances, that is asked in the following terms: did the accused commit the crime with this or that aggravating circumstance?
The president of the court of assizes declares the debates closed and the court and jury enter into deliberation.
On questions as to the culpability/guilt
The court and the jury form the panel. They deliberate together on the verdict of guilt. The president reads the following instruction to the jurors: "The law provides that a conviction may not be pronounced unless it appears from the evidence admitted or submitted to the contradiction of the parties that the accused is guilty beyond any reasonable doubt of the crimes charged against him/her”.
To deliberate, the panel has at its disposal the file, the exhibits filed by the parties, the pleadings, the exhibits and its notes.
Only the 12 full jurors will answer the questions (principal and ancillary) on the guilt of the accused, by an individual vote, question by question and by secret ballot. The ballot is secret unless, on a principal question on guilt, the answer is seven yes to five no: the court (the three magistrates) will then deliberate and answer the question in its turn. This is the only circumstance in which the court participates in the vote on guilt.
The jury's decision is made by a majority vote.
The panel writes the motivation for the jury's decision in a judgment.
Members of the panel may not leave the deliberation chamber until they have made their statement.
During the deliberation, substitute jurors may not communicate with third parties. A room is reserved for them.
The decision (verdict) is pronounced in open court.
Potentially, on the sanction
In the event of a declaration of guilt, the jury and the court together shall decide on the sanction to be imposed, after hearing the prosecution's case and the defence's arguments. Decisions are taken by an absolute majority of votes.
The judgment on the sanctions is then pronounced in open court.
The convicted person then has 15 days to lodge an appeal before the supreme court (“Cour de Cassation / Hof van Cassatie”): in Belgium, there is no possibility of appeal before a court of appeal against a judgement of the court of assizes.
Civil parties may claim compensation from the convicted person for damages caused by a crime of which the accused has been found guilty. For the investigation and judgment on civil actions, the court of assizes sits without the assistance of the jury.
What is the role of the press?
Within its mission to inform and assess the course of a trial, the press (written, televised and radio) plays an essential role in any a democracy.
Many Belgian and foreign journalists will attend the debates, which are public.
Lawyers of the parties to the case (defence and civil parties) may speak to the press, subject to the rules specific to their profession.
The parties present in person may also respond to any press enquiries, if they so wish.
In the context of this trial, and given the large number of civil parties, each of them will be given a cord, the color of which will indicate to the press whether or not they agree to be interviewed.
As a reminder, the members of the jury may not have any contact with the press, nor with the parties or their lawyers.
Any difficulties encountered in dealing with the press during the hearing falls under the competence of the president of the court of assizes, who is responsible to ensure the "police of the hearing".
Unless authorised by the president of the court of assizes, hearings are not filmed or recorded by the press.
How to find a lawyer?
You can choose the lawyer of your choice. He/she must be able to speak French and know the rules of procedure of the court of assizes in Belgium.
If you do not know any lawyer, you can find one via the websites www.avocats.be (French or German speaking lawyers) and www.advocaat.be (Dutch speaking lawyers).
You should verify whether your insurance does not allow you to benefit from a lawyer of your choice whose cost is fully or partially covered by your insurer.
If you meet the conditions provided for by Belgian law to benefit from total or partial legal aid, you can apply for legal aid at the legal aid office located in Brussels or at your place of residence in Belgium. You can obtain practical information at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is the language used during this trial?
The trial is conducted in French only. If you are an accused or a civil party, you can benefit from an interpreter.
Can we be accompanied?
You may be accompanied, except by a minor child.
Is there a car park?
There is paid parking on site, 30 minutes' walk from the courtrooms.
The site is accessible to persons with reduced mobility.
Can we eat and drink?
No food or drink can be brought on site, but a cafeteria is available.
Can I use my mobile phone and/or film?
It is forbidden to disrupt the hearings by telephoning and it is forbidden to film the premises and the people.
Victim reception services in Justice Centers
www.justizhaus.be (Opferbetreuung) (DE)