Fast family courts?

Fast family courts: in the Dinant district of Belgium, family court cases don’t take three years – they take three weeks!

The Consensus Model

Since April 2012, the Dinant region of Belgium has employed an innovative approach to family law known as The Consensus Model. A team in Cochem, Germany, first developed the model in the 1990s. The Belgian family court judge – and Two Wishes representative – Marie-France Carlier has promoted it in Belgium since then. These are some of the key features:

• National legislation required no changes. This innovation needed only a change in court procedures and practice along with the attitudes of the judges and lawyers involved;

• One or both parents, with or without lawyers, may apply to the Belgian family court for a decision regarding children and financial matters;

• Ideally the first hearing takes place within 15 days though sometimes more time is needed;

A hands-on judge

• The general preference is for verbal communication with the judge rather than formal, written documents;

• Many parents reach a parenting agreement at this very first but substantial hearing, with the court’s assistance. Otherwise, the court encourages parents to participate in mediation. Even when only one parent requests it, the judge can order mediation. They may even pick up the phone to liaise for an appointment;

• The judge may speak with children, if they are 12 or over, prior to this hearing. Importantly, all judges know there are inherent risks in this. In particular the possibility of influences on children to make statements that don’t represent their real views;

• A criminal court hears any allegations of a potentially criminal nature, including family violence. That court tells the family court of any findings of fact;

• Most judges lay down the rules and boundaries clearly to both applicants and lawyers present. Some state, for instance, that there will be ‘zero tolerance’ for anyone attempting to fracture the relationship between a child and the other parent or loved relatives of the child;

• The same judge continues with any future hearings for that family until all children reach the age of 18. The judge encourages parents to see their mediator rather than return to court about issues that may arise over time.