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Collective redress now available to Belgian consumers

Class actions, by which many similar individual claims are rolled into one group proceeding, are now permitted in Belgium, although with some restrictions to limit abuse.

On July 5, 2013, the Belgian Government approved a bill authorizing class action lawsuits, commonly referred to as ‘class actions’ as they are known in the United States. While the field of application of these lawsuits is quite large, the bill has some restrictions that should limit abuse by consumers.

“Consumer protection means not only to have rights, but also for consumers to have the means to enforce these rights at their disposal. We hereby give consumers the right to take their own initiative and to address the Court together through a common representative,” said Johan Vande Lanotte, Deputy Prime Minster and Minister of Economy, Consumer Affairs and the North Sea.

The exact details of the bill have not yet been made public, but some details have leaked. Most notably, the bill places many restrictions on consumers to limit abuses similar to those seen in the United States, which generate significant costs for the businesses involved.

For starters, the bill is not retroactive. Secondly, when a judge deems a case admissible, both parties will first enter amicable negotiations. Only when these negotiations fail can the case be brought to court. Most importantly, only certain accredited consumer organizations can represent the consumers, thus excluding law firms, consulting firms and organizations that would have been created around a specific case.

While those excluded might resent this restriction, companies in Belgium are pleased with this decision. Indeed, they have long opposed the implementation of ‘class actions’, fearing a large number of lawsuits that would seriously hinder their activities and finances. In the United States, law firms have been known to actively seek out consumers to join lawsuits, something companies wished to avoid in Belgium.

AmCham Belgium’s position

It is important to strike the right balance between consumer protection and economic growth. The Chamber’s main concern was that the implementation of class actions in Belgium would lead to abuses such as those seen in the United States, which generate important costs for businesses on the receiving end of those lawsuits. The restrictions put in place by the government should help to curtail the number of lawsuits and their associated costs, while ensuring consumers have access to justice.

To read about AmCham Belgium’s policy recommendations in more detail, please refer to our 2013 Priorities for a Prosperous Belgium.