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The Sociopolitical History of Justice Administration in Belgium (1795-2005)

Research project P6/01 (Research action P6)


Persons :

  • Prof. dr.  ROUSSEAUX Xavier - Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL)
    Coordinator of the project
    Financed belgian partner
    Duration: 1/1/2007-31/12/2011
  • Prof. dr.  VELLE Karel - National and Provincial State Archives ()
    Financed belgian partner
    Duration: 1/1/2007-31/12/2011
  • Prof. dr.  NANDRIN Jean-Pierre - Facultés Universitaires St.-Louis (FUSL)
    Financed belgian partner
    Duration: 1/1/2007-31/12/2011
  • Prof. dr.  HEIRBAUT Dirk - Universiteit Gent (RUG)
    Financed belgian partner
    Duration: 1/1/2007-31/12/2011
  • Dr.  LUYTEN Dirk - Center for hist. research & docum. on war & contemp. Society (CEGES-SOMA)
    Financed belgian partner
    Duration: 1/1/2007-31/12/2011
  • Prof. dr.  FABER Sjoerd - University of Amsterdam (UNI-AM)
    Financed foreign partner
    Duration: 1/1/2007-31/12/2011
  • Prof. dr.  LEUWERS Hervé - Université Lille-3 (UNLILLE)
    Financed foreign partner
    Duration: 1/1/2007-31/12/2011

Description :

1. State of the art: Belgian justice, a society without a past ?

Today the theme of justice is a burning issue but this has not always been the case. In point of fact, little research has been dedicated to the history of justice in Belgium. Hence it is not surprising that today a gulf exists between the society's interest in Belgian justice and the in-depth work of researchers. One essential lack involves knowledge of historical evolutions and their impact on the present situation.
To atone for this lack, the partners in this project have undertaken an exploratory study of the political and social history of justice in Belgium from 1830 to the present and point out a certain number of lacunae in the research . They are flagrant, among others with regard to the history of politics in the area of civil law and juridical professions. Similarly for relations between justice and society, we have underlined the absence of empirical works in relation to the international literature. Finally, even for themes where the impression of a suprabundance of information is predominant, like penal justice or the police, in-depth research work is needed in order to reach a complete, critical and structured synthesis.


2. The programme: a social and political history of justice

Without an integrated research programme it is impossible to make up for the deficit of research on justice. This is why the partners would like to carry out an in-depth study of Belgian justice along four lines:

- the evolution of policies carried out by various judicial actors (from ministers to actors in the field) – to be done in penal as well as civil areas. The most urgent task for research is to explore the political debate around justice administration and the administrative policies in the main field of social life (private, work and business disputes, crime problem).
- study of the collective practices of actors. A second need is the connection between the legal history and the social history via the quantitative and systemic approach of political and administrative sociology of the justice actors at different level.
- profiles of collective actors of the judiciary world: juridical professions (lawyers, notaries, bailiffs), judiciary (judges), civil servants of the ministry and the penitentiary administration and police officers in their relationship to justice
- global studies focused for this first phase on specific foundation and crisis times. For this first phase, we choose to focus on two particularly challenging historical periods: the origins of the Belgian justice (1795-1830) and Twentieth-Century Wartimes (1914-1950).

These elements have sometimes been studied in isolation, whereas they are permanently interactive. The success or failure of eventual judicial reforms can only be explained within this global and dynamic perspective. Such a perspective is better able to account for specific directive lines, models of behaviour and group mentalities proper to the Belgian system. We add that long term research on the two centuries is not only scientifically but also socially relevant. If recent undertakings on relations between justice and society, such as the project "Citizen, Law and Society" of the King Baudouin Foundation remain insufficient, it is due to a lack of knowledge of the historical development of the present situation. To carry out such research, one must assemble a team of jurists, historians, criminologists, sociologists and political scientists who, crossing disciplinary frontiers, bring particular disciplines together for each element of the research field. Within university structures, it is practically impossible to reunite collaborators from various relevant scientific disciplines in one single structure. The IAP responds to that need. The partners have been chosen due to their competence in a particular domain of justice as well as for the specific disciplinary and methodological expertise they can provide other network members.
For this five-year phase, four domains or thematic sectors will be studied over an extensive period (1830-2005). Civil justice (legal history), penal justice (historical criminology), prosopography of the judiciary world (socio-political history) and sources (archival science). They are developed around transversal views of key periods of the history of Belgian justice: the origins (Revolutions 1795-1830), and the world wars (the 1914-1950 wartimes), necessitating specialized expertises: modern history, contemporary history, legal history, and sociology.


3. Objects and methods: Discourse and practices under the eye of the methodologies of social sciences

Interdisciplinarity leads to our going beyond the juridical paradigm on the methodological level. Instead of an historical analysis of law considered as an autonomous given, the partnership tends toward a socio-historical conception of law wherein juridical change processes are not studied in isolation, but in their relationship to other social change factors. The historical sources provide unprecedented material for describing the major tendencies in perceptions of justice when they are interpreted in the light of social and political theories. We shall, moreover, use the research methods of the social and political sciences, notably quantitative methods, for example, for making major statistical series now seldom compared, unreliable, and fairly inaccessible or little known usable and available for criticism.
The project also wants a strong methodological integration, one centred around the networking and distribution of accumulated knowledge. Each researcher contributes to the data base crossroads JUST[ice]-Historical Information Systems aimed at the progressive integration of textual, numerical, biographical and bibliographical DBs, as well as thematic or chronological research results. The place allowed in the process to State Archives witnesses to our desire to accentuate our goal of structured, cumulative and critical access to the information needed for understanding the evolutions of Belgian justice.


4. The partnership's structure and each partner's contribution

The partners already bring together the majority of expertise available in Belgium and want to form an emergent team by mixing expertises, disciplines and research domains in the social sciences. To guaranty real multi-disciplinary co-operation and data comparability, the JUST-HIS DB will be constructed by and for the whole partnership and will gather together statistical, biographical, archival and juridical data. This data base seeks to make coherent research sources and methods that are still disparate in the specific research areas of history, criminology, political science and sociology, in order to extend them to new sectors (civil law,…) so as to stimulate a cross-fertilization of disciplines around the “justice” domain, thus renewing traditional legal history in Belgium and continental Europe.

This socio-historical approach is at the heart of X. Rousseaux's work (UCL) in Belgium, who, for that reason, will assume general co-ordination of the project.


Co-ordination Partner 1: Xavier Rousseaux (UCL). Besides co-ordination (WP9), he provides the historical-criminological expertise within the network, and he is in charge of the communication and management of the databases (WP7), since he (co-)directs different external research projects supplying valuable data. Moreover, the coordinator will direct a research program on criminal politics and penal practices from 1830 to 2005 (WP3). A specialized postdoctoral researcher will assist him in carrying out all these different tasks. Further, the coordinator ensures the co-ordination and integration of the European partners dealing with the period 1795 to 1830 (WP6), a task for which additional support by an external postdoctoral researcher FNRS will be provided.

Partner 2: Dirk Heirbaut, Ghent University: This partner, with Boudewijn Bouckaert (UGent), initiated the above-mentioned project on the history of justice the present project is based on. He will ensure juridical expertise and provide the needed information on the modernization of justice, relying on an e-government project. This research will deal with policy in the area of civil law and juridical professions, as the only recent research carried out on policy in the area of civil law and the bar has been done by this unit, notably by Dirk Heirbaut and Georges Martyn, who maintain structured exchanges with the Max Planck Institute on the History of Law in Frankfurt. They will be in charge of result distribution policy (WP8).

Partner 3: Jean-Pierre Nandrin (FUSL) will manage the part of the research dedicated to the magistrature. Author of the only Ph.D. on the history of the Belgian magistrature, he directs an FRFC research project on the prosopography of the nineteenth century Belgian magistrature. This project has developed a unique computer application facilitating the profiling of judges, the composition of courts and tribunals and the nomination process. This project will be extended to the twentieth century as well as to the 1795-1830 period (WP4).

Partner 4: Karel Velle (General State Archives) is responsible for archival support. The best expertise on judicial archives is to be found at the State Archives. This will be mobilized for developing a research instrument offering a global vision of sources (WP1). Moreover in collaborating with the archives, the network will increase its facility in the matter of archives (location and access to funds on Belgian justice that are not yet inventoried).

Partner 5: Dirk Luyten (Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society/Ghent University): working in a centre internationally recognized for the study of wars, D. Luyten will carry out research on Belgian justice at the moment of a particular crisis, the occupations during the two world wars and their political and judicial sequels during the postwar period (1914-1950) (WP5).

European Union Partners:

Partner 6 (EU1): Hervé Leuwers and Catherine Denys (IRHIS, Lille III), specialists in the social and political history of legal professionals for H.Leuwers, and of the police for C. Denys, for the period of the French Revolution in the north of France and in Belgium.

Partner 7 (EU2): Sjoerd Faber (Free University Amsterdam): law historian and specialist of the history of criminal law and of the progressive formation of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1811-1830). He has also done research on the history of the Dutch ministry of Justice and the repression of collaboration after World War II in the Netherlands.

These recognized experts on justice in their own countries will provide determinant expertise on the two preliminary phases of the formation of an independent judicial system in Belgium: the French revolutionary and imperial experience (1795-1815) and the experience of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815-1830) (WP6).


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