Home » They work more than 52 hours a week, and overtime is not paid in wages: judges sound the alarm (Brussels)

They work more than 52 hours a week, and overtime is not paid in wages: judges sound the alarm (Brussels)

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In our country, an average of no fewer than 843,100 files appear before a court every year. This is evident from a count of all files handled by the Belgian courts in 2021, 2022 and 2023. Most cases came before the justice of the peace (262,900 cases), the court of first instance (248,600) and the police courts (166,800). To pass judgment on all these cases, there are 1,514 judges working in our country – although there should actually be 1,632 by now. But the judiciary often finds insufficient candidates.

To be clear, a judge’s job involves more than just listening to the two sides in the courtroom. Before the hearing, a judge must study the entire file. “For a simple traffic violation, this consists of a cover of approximately 20 pages,” says the Board. “But in large criminal cases against criminal organizations, such a file can easily amount to 15,000 pages.”

After the court hearing, a judge must write down his judgment in a substantiated judgment. As a result, a judge works an average of 52.8 hours per week, according to the workload measurement. At the courts of first instance and the courts of appeal, this can even amount to an average of 54 hours.

Overtime

Judge Rob Hobin: “You can only stretch the elastic until it snaps.” — © BELGA

It means that judges work a lot of overtime every week and every weekend to get their work done, because they are also expected to work a 38-hour working week. “Judges work an abnormal amount of overtime,” the Board says. “They are willing to do this, given the social importance of their position. But this within reasonable limits.” To be clear, these overtime hours are not paid: they are converted into days of leave.

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“Look: we judges are happy to work overtime,” says Judge Rob Hobin, first chairman of the Court of Appeal in Antwerp. “For many judges, the job is a calling. But the number of hours keeps increasing. And that is also a bad thing for the citizen. Because if ten cases have to happen in one morning, you as a citizen have less time to tell your story. Your right to speak out and to be heard is jeopardized.”

“This workload is not sustainable and the magistrates will be less and less prepared to continue working the same amount of overtime,” the Board warns. Hobin also acknowledges this: “You can only stretch the elastic until it breaks.”

Increase by 43%

The Board now demands that the government increase the number of judges in our country. To guarantee the 38-hour week, staff would have to increase by 43.69 percent, so that a total of 2,329 judges would be working. “That is of course in an ideal situation,” says Hobin. “We will always work overtime, and that’s okay. But the workforce needs to be expanded.”

And according to Hobin, these extra judges can be found in the legal profession: “Many lawyers are now deterred by the high workload. But once the vicious circle is broken and the workload becomes normal, that will change.”

“It is a good thing that after years there is finally a workload measurement,” responds the office of Justice Minister Paul Van Tigchelt (Open VLD). “This provides an objective basis for examining the expenditure of resources in the next legislature. Then we can continue to build on the reinforcement that this government has already introduced. The number of appointed magistrates has increased by 140 since October 2020. But additional staff alone will not solve the high workload. Efficiency in work processes must also be taken into account.”

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