Overview of disciplinary proceedings against lawyers in Flanders
The College of Supervision of the Flemish Legal Profession has published its third report. This provides an overview of disciplinary proceedings against lawyers in Flanders (including Brussels-Dutch) in the judicial year running from 1 September 2021 to 31 August 2022.
258 new disciplinary proceedings initiated in period 2021-22
In the period 2021-22, a total of 258 new disciplinary proceedings were initiated at the staffers, who oversee lawyers' disciplinary files. Almost 60% of the cases involved disciplinary proceedings following a complaint, usually on behalf of a (former) client, but could also involve another complainant, such as another lawyer. In about 30% of the cases, the staff member opened disciplinary proceedings on his own initiative, and in almost 8% of the cases, it was a combination of both. In the remaining cases, the disciplinary proceedings originated in a report by the public prosecutor's office. Complaints vary in nature, but negligence in files, for example, is a recurrent allegation.
In almost half of cases, complaint gets no action
Of those 258 cases, almost half resulted in a dismissal. The chief of staff then assesses the complaint as inadmissible, unfounded or of insufficient weight to justify disciplinary proceedings. Complainants dissatisfied with a dismissal can appeal it to the chairman of the disciplinary board. In the remaining cases, the investigation is ongoing or the lawyer concerned has been referred to the disciplinary board.
"Lawyers are not above the law. People who have complaints about their lawyer can turn to the President of the Bar, who plays a mediating role in the interest of the citizen, but can also always initiate disciplinary proceedings when he finds disciplinary violations," says Peter Callens, president Advocaat.be.
Alternatively, they can appeal to Ligeca, which is the ombudsman service of the Flemish Bars, or summon their lawyer to court and even file a criminal complaint.
A total of 46 disciplinary board rulings
The three disciplinary boards (Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent) issued a total of 46 rulings in the period 2021-22. In 7 cases, the prosecuted lawyer was acquitted. In 7 cases, the favour of suspension was granted. This means that if the lawyer goes wrong again, he or she can still incur a disciplinary conviction. In 9 files, the disciplinary board issued a warning or reprimand, for example for non-compliance with continuing education rules. In 15 cases, a suspension was imposed. These included for representing conflicting interests or transferring a file to a successor lawyer too late. Suspensions ranged from 15 days to 1 year in the period discussed, sometimes with postponements. During a suspension, a lawyer is not allowed to practise.
This year there were 4 deletions, last year there were 8. This varies from year to year. It shows that disciplinary boards can be very strict. This trend is also reflected in the pronounced suspensions. During a suspension, the lawyer falls without income and suffers considerable loss of reputation. This is a severe punishment.
Deletions and suspensions
In four cases, the disciplinary board imposed the removal of the prosecuted lawyer. Upon removal, the person concerned loses the title of lawyer. Thus, the disciplinary council has removed lawyers who committed negligence in handling a case and seriously neglected their clients' interests. It also struck off a lawyer who became involved in a criminal organisation and a lawyer who had committed financial irregularities with third-party funds.
There are about 11,000 Flemish lawyers. They are all affiliated with at least one of the eight Flemish bar associations. Those bars are in turn grouped under the umbrella of the Order of Flemish Bars (OVB), also known as Advocaat.be.
About the Supervisory Board
The Supervisory Board is an independent supervisory body established by the OVB. It started its work in 2020 and its tasks include contributing to the harmonisation, monitoring and promotion of disciplinary practice in the legal profession.
The Board does not receive complaints itself and does not intervene in individual disciplinary cases, but oversees general disciplinary policy and disciplinary proceedings as a whole. It consists of five members and is chaired by the chairman of the OVB. There are also two member lawyers and two external members. The Board publishes an annual report, which also contains recommendations to staff holders, disciplinary board chairs and the disciplinary boards themselves.
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