The court was asked to determine whether Article 4(1) of a law passed on 24 December 2020 is compatible with Articles 10 and 11 of the Constitution, in that it allowed for the suspension of the limitation period of public action introduced by Article 3 of Royal Decree No. 3 of 9 April 2020 applies generally, without excluding procedures for which judgment has been delayed for reasons that are unrelated to the health crisis that justified the introduction of this suspension.
The party requesting the preliminary ruling argues that this provision creates discrimination between people to whom the limitation periods apply, which are suspended, and people to whom the limitation periods for appeals of criminal convictions apply, which are not suspended. The question focuses on the equal treatment of two categories of people: those whose judgment has been delayed for reasons unrelated to the health crisis and those whose judgment has been delayed due to this crisis, given that it justified the introduction of the suspension in question.
The court determined that, in the case at hand, the last act that interrupted the limitation period was on 29 July 2015, so if royal decree No. 3 of 9 April 2020 had not come into effect, public action would have been prescribed on 29 July 2020. The court also determined that the appellate court hearing was fixed on two dates after 29 July 2020: 8 and 9 October 2020. Therefore, based on this schedule, the appellate court’s judgment would not have been able to be pronounced before 29 July 2020. The court found that since the hearing was scheduled before the COVID-19 pandemic in Belgium, the delays experienced in the case against the party bringing the case were not related to the pandemic. Therefore, this category of individuals is in a fundamentally different situation than those whose cases were delayed due to the pandemic, yet the provision in question applies to both categories indiscriminately.
The court found that royal decree No. 3 of 9 April 2020 aims at ensuring the effective application of criminal law, protecting society, and maintaining the rule of law in light of the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The court found that the legislature reasonably determined that in these circumstances it was not necessary or feasible to require courts to determine on a case-by-case basis whether the pandemic had a concrete impact on a case in order to decide that the prescription of public action was suspended. Therefore, Article 4(1) of the law of 24 December 2020 is compatible with articles 10 and 11 of the Constitution.
Reference: judgment 2/2023 of 12 January 2023.