top of page

©Rijksarchief Beveren, EAC 0000 Mechelen



1796. After the annexation of the Southern Low Countries, the French introduced an administrative and judicial reform. They wanted to make an end to the abuses, randomness and malfunctioning of the early modern criminal justice. The complaints were well known. The French cahiers de doléances (1789) described and bundled various grievances, including the misfunctioning of justice at the local level. The need of reform was already clear during the eighteenth century. Likewise, in the Southern Netherlands, emperor Joseph II instigated reform, but the resistance of local elites hindered the implication (1780s). Several years later, the judicial reform was indeed a fact.

Six principles acted as guidelines, based on the central values of the French Revolution (égalité, fraternité et liberté):

  • The law and the procedure must be clear, ascertainable, and uniform in a jurisdiction (principle of legality)

  • All individuals are to be tried equally and fair (principle of equality)

  • Punishments must be in keeping with the criminal offence. Imprisonment is preferred over corporal punishment and death sentence (principle of proportionality and subsidiarity)

  • Only criminals, and no third party, stand trial (principle of personality)

  • Criminal justice must be as open and accessible to the public as possible, sentences must be motivated and pronounced in public (open court principle)

This reform led to the restructuring of the court system. Whereas the early modern century judicial system was fragmented and put great emphasis on the local level in handling criminal cases, the 19th-century court system was more centralized. From then onwards, fewer courts dealt with specific types of crime. Despite some changes during the French period (1796-1811), the 19th-century criminal judiciary was as follows: the police tribunals functioned on the level of the canton and dealt with minor offences and infractions. Appeals were taken to the correctional courts, which were part of the tribunal of first instance together with the civil courts. They functioned on the level of the judicial arrondissements and dealt with misdemeanors, such as petty theft, assault and fraud, and correctionalized felonies. The court of appeal had appellate jurisdiction over sentences of the correctional courts. On the provincial level, there were the courts of assizes which dealt with felony, such as murder, kidnapping, arson and burglary.





The sources that are used, belong to the following archival series:

  • To be supplemented

bottom of page