There are no less than three official languages in Belgium: Dutch, French and German. As a general rule, claimants and defendants are not entitled to choose the language of legal proceedings that are instituted before a Belgian court in civil and commercial matters. A 1935 statute on the use of languages in judicial matters contains a complex set of rules which determine the language of the proceedings in each particular case.
Where the competent court lies within a so-called ‘unilingual’ area, the statute provides that the claim form has to be drawn up in the official language of that area. The provinces of Antwerp, Limburg, West and East Flanders together with the district of Leuven form the unilingual Dutch area. The provinces of Hainaut, Luxembourg and Namur, together with the districts of Huy, Liège, Nivelles and Verviers form the unilingual French area and the district of Eupen forms the unilingual German area.
The situation in relation to the Brussels courts is more complicated. The Brussels region is ‘bilingual’ (French and Dutch). The language of proceedings brought before courts in Brussels is therefore determined by the domicile of the defendant. The statute provides that the proceedings shall be instituted in French if the defendant is domiciled in a unilingual French area and in Dutch if he is domiciled in a unilingual Dutch area. If the defendant is domiciled in a unilingual German area or the Brussels region then the claimant can choose whether to bring proceedings in French or Dutch. This is also the case if the claimant is unable to establish where the defendant is domiciled.
If more than one defendant is involved, the language will be determined by the language of the majority. Defendants forming part of the group who are domiciled in the Brussels region will not be taken into account.
The 1935 statute contains further specific rules for certain parts of Belgium adding to the difficulties faced by the parties and the Judge when determining which language should be used.
Legal proceedings will usually proceed in the language in which they are commenced. However, the court may allow the language to be changed at the request of all parties or at the request of the defendant. In the latter case, the court can refuse to allow a change if it considers that the defendant has a sufficient knowledge of the language in which the proceedings were instituted.
The provisions of the 1935 Act are mandatory and proceedings that are commenced in the wrong language are void. This can, of course, have serious consequences, for example, where a claim is commenced in the wrong language and, in the meantime, the limitation period applicable to the claim expires. It is therefore essential for Belgian lawyers to be well-versed in the curiosities of the 1935 statute.