Friday, December 02, 2005

My First Belgian Court Appearance - Bombs And All!

(This is a long one, so stay with me!)

Although not licensed to practice law before the Belgian courts, I thought it might be interesting to watch a trial or hearing to see how much the Belgian judicial system differs from the United States. So, today, I put on a black business suit with a white collarless shirt, donned heels, grabbed my long black coat and walked several miles to the Palace of Justice. (At this point, let me say that my hat goes off to all these European women who make walking on cobblestones in heels look easy!)

As I approached the Palace, which for reference sake is home to the highest court in the land, the Cour de Cassation (similar to our US Supreme Court), there was a policeman stationed about 100 yards in front of the main entranceway. He did not speak English, but I understood enough of whatever he was speaking to realize that this particular sidewalk was closed. He pointed to the other side of the plaza. I smiled, gave him a "merci", and crossed to the other side of the plaza, where I was met by yet another policeman. This one spoke English and, when I asked if I could enter the Palace, he said "oui" and pointed to the other side of the plaza. I headed off in the direction that he pointed.

I was now directly in front of the Palace and was amazed at how many police were suddenly arriving in the area. I didn't give it much thought as I overheard someone say that there had been an accident in the parking structure (which is located, I believe, below the Palace).

Standing in front of the Palace was this woman wearing a black robe with a white sash. She spoke English and offered to escort me into the Palace via the side entrance. Michelle, I later learned was her name, showed me where the various courtrooms were and told me which ones were divorce, administrative, military, etc. She assured me that I could just walk in and watch the proceedings. She even joked that she was my "personal guide".

I found Michele extremely helpful, which is why I was so shocked to later learn that she had completely failed to mention in her little tour that the building was under a BOMB THREAT! Call me crazy, but I think if you are going to assume the responsibility of "personal guide," you should realize that information such as this may prove invaluable to someone, who you know does not speak the language and who you know is going to be walking aimlessly around the highest court of the land, peeking through portals of doors and randomly entering courtrooms.

Blissfully unaware of what was taking place outside, I strolled around the various floors of the Palace, looking through the little round windows in the doors trying to find an "interesting" courtroom. I settled on Salle 23, which would turn out to be my SECOND major mistake of the morning.

Presiding over Salle 23 was a woman judge who, from my vantage point from the little window on the door, appeared to be quite animated. I've been around enough "animated" judges to know that, at the very least, there was potential for something "interesting" to happen in the courtroom. I was not disappointed! Once I entered the courtroom, I was able to see that there were, in fact, three women on the bench. Two of them in robes and one that looked like she may have been a clerk.

I would say the most obvious difference between US and Belgian courts is that the proceedings are in French, which I don't speak (File this little gem away for later reference as it is going to become very important very quickly). From context clues, I was able to discern that there were two parties, both represented and sitting behind their respective counsel, and that the party with the younger of the two lawyers was losing.

After hearing several minutes of argument, the animated Judge dismissed the case. The parties and their lawyers left, leaving the only remaining occupants in the room me and this attorney to my left, who, by virtue of his sporty black robe and white sash, was obviously admitted to practice before the court.

The clerk called the next case number and the attorney walked forward and took his place at the lectern. All eyes then turned to me. I turned around, hoping that the two judges on the bench, the clerk, and the attorney, were all looking at someone that had (please, God) entered behind me. No such luck.

The animated judge, who from this point forward will be known as "The Devil", said something to me in French. I stood and responded in what I had hoped to be my best French, which would turn out to be my THIRD major mistake of the day. What I intended to say was, "Je ne parle pas Francais" ("I don't speak French"). What came blurting out of my mouth was "Je ne comprends pas" ("I don't understand."). The Devil took this to mean that I spoke French, but I just didn't understand what she had said to me.

At this point, let's just say that I became the subject of her "animation," and she completely railed on me. Caught between a rock and a hard space, since I know that the only surefire way to piss-off a judge (even more) is to interrupt one, I opted for the hard space and just stood there and took her lashing. She was growing more and more animated and waiving a case folder in front of me. At this point, the attorney, whose sincerity I greatly question, turned and whispered to me in English, "she wants to know which case you are here on". Thank you, Einstein!

When she finally paused, I responded, in English, "I'm sorry. I'm not here on a case. I just came to watch the proceedings." The Devil then beckoned me forward. As I approached the bench, she stared me up and down, and apparently realized for the first time, that I was wearing a black flowing COAT with a white SHIRT and not a black flowing ROBE with a white SASH. Perhaps, her first mistake for the day. Exit Devil stage right.

Having been sufficiently berated for the day, I thought I would call it quits and head back to the apartment. I walked around the palace for awhile until I located the main exit, which had a sign with a big red X on it that said "verboeten." As I wandered around the massive building looking for another way out, I couldn't help but to notice how eerily empty the place was. I chalked it up to lunchtime. My FOURTH major mistake of the day.

I finally found an exit near the post office, which I took and made, hopefully, my FIFTH and last major mistake of the day. This particular exit put me out near the main entrance of the palace. Police were everywhere. Camera crews were everywhere. Fire trucks were everywhere. Bomb squads were everywhere. To be completely accurate, I should say that they were everywhere EXCEPT where I was. Somehow, the exit I used placed me smack dab in the middle of the area cardoned off by the police for the bomb!

So, there I am, standing INSIDE the police tape, looking out at the police, the news crews, firemen, and scores of people, carefully avoiding the curious stares of the onlookers, and wondering how in the world did I get myself into this situation!

© 2005 Cindy Lane. All rights reserved.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Rachael said...

Any day now, I just know I am going to get a knock at the door asking me what my connection is with a Ms. Cindy Lane.

5:50 PM  
Blogger Rachael said...

Any day now, I just know I am going to get a knock at the door asking me what my connection is with a Ms. Cindy Lane.

5:50 PM  
Blogger Elana said...

Okay, I'm sending you a French for Dummies for Christmas. You're like an I Love Lucy in Belgium episode!

8:08 PM  
Blogger Lori Hansen said...

Where was FS in all of this? You know Ryan is asking about him EVERYDAY!!!

3:54 AM  
Blogger Trish said...

AT least she didn't cite you for contempt! Must be nice to have your days free to wander the city...oh what the hell...I just got back from Sea World....

10:59 PM  
Anonymous Rod said...

Didn't they teach you that method in law school? That is what Pat does (call in a bomb threat) when he is about to lose a case...funny, Cleveland has a lot of bomb threats.

3:29 PM  
Blogger woman wandering said...

Stunning ...

I can only offer up the time a woman fell past my 5th floor balcony while I was living in Istanbul but really, that was over in a flash in comparison.

8:55 PM  

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