The Government adopted a Royal Decree under special powers regarding extension of the statute of limitations and other time limits for bringing legal proceedings as well as extension of procedural time limits and the written procedure before courts and tribunals, which was published in the Belgian Official Gazette on 9 April 2020.
This decree regulates three aspects:
- extension of the statute of limitations and other time limits for bringing a claim before a civil court;
- extension of procedural deadlines and time limits for lodging an appeal ("rechtsmiddel"/"voie de recours"); and
- the taking under deliberation without pleadings of cases set before courts and tribunals (with a few exceptions (see Scope of application).
New cases: extension of statute of limitations and other time limits for bringing a claim before a civil court
The statute of limitations and other time limits for bringing a claim before a civil court which expire during the period from 9 April 2020 to 3 May 2020 (extended if necessary) will be automatically extended by one month from the expiry of this period. For example, a limitation period expiring on 15 April 2020 will be extended to 3 June 2020.
(Civil) cases already pending (or soon to be filed): extension of procedural deadlines or time limits for lodging appeals
- For proceedings pending (or to be brought) before courts and tribunals, the procedural deadline or the time limit for introducing an appeal ("rechtsmiddel"/"voie de recours") which expires during the period from 9 April 2020 to 3 May 2020 (extended if necessary) and whose expiry is liable to result in disqualification or any other sanction if the act is not performed in due time (e.g. the time limit for filing a brief, the time limit for introducing appeal ("hoger beroep"/"appel") or opposition ("verzet"/"opposition") and the time limit for lodging an appeal to the Supreme Court or a third party opposition, etc.) are automatically extended by one month as from the expiry of this period.
- However, the following are excluded from the scope of application of such extension: (i) criminal proceedings, unless they concern only civil interests, and (ii) disciplinary proceedings, including measures of order.
- In addition, there is an important possibility for parties to object to such extension when the matter is urgent and delay would create a peril. In this case, the party concerned is required to make a reasoned request to this effect, either orally at the hearing or in writing. In the case of a written request, it must be communicated simultaneously to the judge and the other parties, so that the other parties can submit written observations within eight days. The judge will then rule on the request, and his decision is not subject to appeal.
- The one-month extension period is calculated in accordance with articles 52, first paragraph, 53, 54 and 55 of the Judicial Code.
For example, if a deadline for introducing an appeal expires on 15 April 2020 (or any other date between 9 April 2020 and 3 May 2020), the last day for lodging an appeal will be 3 June 2020, unless the Government decides to extend the measures beyond 3 May 2020.
- What about delays after the first deadline (e.g. in a case schedule)? The Decree provides that when a procedural deadline is extended by one month, any subsequent deadlines are simply delayed in time, without being extended. They last as long as was originally planned, but begin to run later.
For example, if Party 1's deadline for filing its brief expires during the containment period, e.g. on 20 April 2020, then this time limit will be extended until 3 June 2020 (further extended if necessary). This therefore implies that this party will in fact have had an extension of the time limit for filing its brief of more than one month, but this does not give the other parties the right to demand an extension of equal duration, as this would have been a source of calculation difficulties and therefore also of disputes. To sum up, if Party 2 had one month from receipt of Party 1's brief and therefore had to submit its brief by 20 May 2020, its new deadline would expire on 3 July (i.e. one month after receipt of Party 1's brief).
As a second example, if Party 1's deadline for filing its brief expires during the containment period, e.g. on 20 April 2020, then the deadline will be extended to 3 June 2020 (further extended if necessary). If Party 2 had two months from receipt of Party 1's brief and therefore had to submit its brief by 20 June 2020, its new deadline would expire on 3 August 2020 (i.e. two months after receipt of the first brief).
- What if these procedural extensions mean that the date for the last brief to be submitted is less than one month before the hearing of the oral argument? The decree provides that the case is then automatically adjourned to the first available hearing one month after the expiry of the final deadline. The new hearing date will be fixed by the registrar of the rolls, under the authority of the president of the court.
Cases fixed (i.e. ready for oral arguments): taking under deliberation without pleadings becomes the principle (with a few exceptions)
- All cases set before the courts and tribunals to be pleaded between 11 April 2020 and 3 June 2020 (this period to be extended if necessary), and for which all parties have submitted briefs, will be automatically taken under deliberation on the basis of the briefs and documents submitted, without oral argument.
- This rule does not apply to criminal courts, except where they are ruling exclusively on civil interests.
- What about the filing of the parties' supporting documents? When the case is taken under deliberation without pleadings, the parties are required to file their supporting documents within one week from the date initially set for pleading; in case of failure to comply with the filing deadline, the supporting documents will be automatically dismissed. Moreover, the proceedings close automatically one month after the court has taken the case under deliberation.
- First exception/mitigation: Deliberation without pleadings applies without prejudice to article 1004/1 of the Judicial Code, which provides that every minor has the right to be heard by a judge in disputes concerning the exercise of parental authority, accommodation and the right to personal contact.
- Second exception/mitigation: The possibility for the judge to ask for oral explanations in cases taken under deliberation without pleadings. No later than one month after the case has been taken under deliberation, the judge may request that the parties provide oral explanations on the points he indicates. For this purpose, the judge must set a date which will be communicated to the parties or their attorneys by the registrar. Oral explanations may be provided by means of a video conference, among other means of communication. In the event that the judge requests such oral explanations, he must declare the proceedings closed on the day on which such explanations are given.
- Third exception/mitigation: Opposition of one or more parties to the case being taken under deliberation without pleadings. A party wishing to oppose the taking of the case under deliberation without pleadings must inform the judge in writing via e-deposit or by simple letter sent or filed at the registry (stating the reasons for the opposition), at the latest (i) one week before the scheduled hearing, or (ii) the day before the hearing for cases scheduled within eight days of the publication of the decree.
In the event of an opposition, two hypotheses must be distinguished:
- If all the parties express their opposition, the case is postponed to an undetermined or fixed date.
- If only one or more parties object, the judge may decide (i) to hold the hearing, possibly by video conference, (ii) to postpone the case to a fixed or indefinite date, or (iii) to take the case under deliberation without pleadings. This decision cannot be appealed.
Parties who have not yet filed their supporting documents are required to file them, under penalty of automatic dismissal, within a period of one week from notification of the decision of the court ruling on the opposition of one or more parties.
- Finally, the Royal Decree also specifies that the parties always have the possibility to jointly decide to resort to the written procedure referred to in article 755 of the Judicial Code at any time during the proceedings.
Scope of application
Ratione materiae, the Royal Decree only applies to proceedings "before courts and tribunals". Therefore, proceedings before the federal administrative courts, the Council of State and the Constitutional Court are not covered by the decree.
Ratione temporis, the Royal Decree takes effect from the day of its publication, i.e. 9 April 2020, onwards.
Some of these measures have been extended by a Royal Decree dated 28 April 2020 (see here for more information).