Belgium, known for its iconic tricolor flag and frequent rain, has been making less visible but significant waves in the legal realm, particularly in family law. Over the past 25 years, a series of laws have transformed the Belgian legal landscape, setting a precedent that many countries look upon with envy.

The journey began with the law of 13 April 1995, which ensured the joint exercise of parental authority even after separation. This pivotal move laid the groundwork for a series of reforms that would prioritize the well-being of children and the responsibilities of parents over the adversarial dynamics of separation.

In 2006, a law favoring equal custody was introduced, marking a significant shift towards shared parenting. This law is not just a legal text; it’s a statement, a philosophy that many countries aspire to emulate. It reflects a belief that both parents should remain equally involved in their children’s lives post-separation, unless proven otherwise.

The law of 27 April 2007 introduced divorce without fault, famously dubbed the ‘divorce TGV’ for its speed. It allowed couples to divorce within three months, significantly reducing the emotional and legal battles that often accompany the dissolution of marriage.

Perhaps one of the most groundbreaking reforms came in 2013 with the establishment of the Family and Youth Court Service (FYCS). This law introduced the principle of ‘one family, one judge,’ streamlining the legal process and promoting alternative dispute resolution methods. The creation of amicable settlement chambers, where a judge attempts to reconcile parties within an hour, exemplifies the innovative approach Belgium has taken.

The laws of 15 and 18 June 2018 further reinforced this approach, mandating mediation efforts before court proceedings and allowing judges to order mediation even if only one parent requests it. These laws underscore the shift from a confrontational to a conciliatory legal culture, where the focus is on resolution rather than victory.

The shared parenting law stands out as a testament to Belgium’s commitment to the child’s best interest. It requires the parent opposing equal parenting to prove why the other should not have custody, reversing the traditional burden of proof and promoting equality.

Belgium’s reforms have led to a significant decrease in parental disputes, with statistics showing a rise in shared custody arrangements. The consensus model, implemented in 2012, further supports this trend by encouraging cooperation and communication between parents.

The role of the family judge has evolved from ruling to reconciling, supporting proposals from lawyers and ensuring the focus remains on the child’s well-being. The judge’s interactive role, the limitation on written submissions, and the emphasis on maintaining decorum in the courtroom all contribute to a more positive and constructive legal process.

Collaborative expertise, another Belgian innovation, focuses on parental collaboration rather than confrontation, helping to rebuild trust and communication between parents and children.

Belgium’s success with these reforms is not just in the laws themselves but in the change of mentality they represent. Regular meetings between judges, lawyers, mediators, and psychologists foster a unified approach to family law. This interdisciplinary collaboration, along with ongoing education and seminars, ensures that all professionals are aligned in their mission to serve the best interests of the family.

In conclusion, Belgium’s family law reforms, while still respecting the European Council’s resolutions, have set a new standard for child-centric, collaborative legal processes. These reforms are not just laws; they are a vision for the future, a commitment to the well-being of children, and a call to change mindsets for the betterment of families worldwide.

As we reflect on these changes, it’s clear that Belgium’s legal landscape is as dynamic and nurturing as the rain that graces its flag, offering pearls of wisdom for the world to consider.

Judge Marie-France CARLIER speaks from 5:13:50 to 5:37:56.

Marie-France CARLIER – Judge in the Family Court – Dinant, Belgique – DOOR Conference 2021

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