The proposal to amend the status of judicial officers was approved by the Belgian Senate in plenary session on the 18th of December 2013. The new law was published in the Belgian Official Gazette on the 22nd of January 2014 and came into effect ten days after its publication.
The status of judicial officers was last amended in 1992 and was in need of modernization after more than 20 years. The new status reflects the daily activities of judicial officers and offers a legal framework for the increasing socio-economical demands legal officers are confronted with.
The guidelines of the reform can be summarized as follows.
1. Modernization and neutralization of the access to the profession
The establishment of two appointment committees (a Dutch-speaking committee and a French-speaking one) will guarantee the neutralization of the appointment process. This is further enforced by the presence of an external member with relevant professional experience. The committee is responsible for the appointment of candidate legal officers and legal officers.
In order to be appointed as a candidate to the profession, aspiring legal officers are required to take part in a comparative exam consisting of a written and oral test, the contents of which will be chosen by the unified professional committee, which consists of the Dutch-speaking and French-speaking committees. The participants are required to have a Law degree and to have completed two years of on-the-job-training.
The introduction of a unified and transparent system with a clearly defined curriculum is aimed at the correct and equal treatment of all trainees.
The new regulations are only applicable to new candidates. People already holding the title of candidate are not required to submit to the exam. They will be legally appointed by the King.
The procedure for the appointment as a legal officer will also change. The future appointment committees will be responsible for the proposal of candidates to the profession. After gathering the required information and hearing the candidates, they will provide the Ministry of Justice with a list of the three most suitable candidates. Deviating from the advised candidates will only be possible in exceptional circumstances and should be properly and neutrally motivated. This will hopefully bring an end to the insecurity caused by the endless list of procedures filed with the Belgian Council of State against the appointment of legal officers.
This neutral procedure is aimed at speeding up the appointment procedure, allowing more women and younger candidates to access the profession.
2. Improvement of the status of candidate legal officers.
In the previous status dating back to 1992, the status of candidate legal officers was not specified. However, these candidates hold an essential position in the offices of legal officers. Their role has been confirmed in the new status.
The implementation of the comparative exam neutralizes the access procedure to the position of candidate legal officer. Thanks to their membership of the district chamber of legal officers and the general meeting of the National Chamber of Legal Officers, candidates are involved in the activities of the professional organisations.
3. Continuity of offices
The new status also offers a solution for non-associated legal officers. In the period between resignation, dismissal or death and the appointment of a new legal officer for this position, an acting legal officer will be appointed to see to the general management and the continuity of the office. The new regulations also determine that the successor is bound to take over contracts in place with regard to office infrastructure (rent, delivery, leasing and employment contracts).
This safeguards the continuity of the offices and the normal course of affairs and guarantees the service to the public.
4. Amendment of disciplinary jurisdiction
Legal officers hold a ministerial and public office and have a fundamental monopoly. This privileged position can only be justified by implementing a strict code of conduct and deontology. In this aspect, the presence of a professional governing body is essential.
The new status transfers disciplinary jurisdiction from the districts to the Court of Appeal. This external influence means that disciplinary jurisdiction is no longer strictly in the hands of fellow legal officers. This removes the suspicion of bias and increases credibility. Appeal against a decision of the professional body will be referred to the courts of first instance.
We live in an ever-changing society. The new status creates a structured framework that meets the needs of the specific situation of legal officers today and the increased expectations society has towards the profession. The neutralization of the appointment process, the formalization of the role of candidate legal officers and the amendment of the disciplinary code are the cornerstones of the new status of the profession.
Or as John F. Kennedy put it, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”