2013 | 6 | 4 | 365–386
Article title

The Historical Roots of Belgian Commercial Law

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The article presents a synthetic approach to the history of Belgian commercial law. The author starts with the regulations of Roman law and leads us from the beginnings of civil law in the times of the Roman Republic, describing the role of aediles and praetors, to the times of the Roman Empire. A significant part is dedicated to the grain trade and searches – not always successfully – for a self-contained commercial law. A separate analysis of the Roman banking practices includes a discussion of cheques and accounting. The fall of the Western Roman Empire brought changes in trade in the Mediterranean region. The description of the Middle Ages includes a series of causal factors that contributed to the development of commercial law in Western Europe and that were related to the Roman tradition (for example the development of canon law and the Church itself as an institution, as well as the development of universities). It also contains the analysis of organisational elements of commercial law that mainly pertain to Italy, which at that time had a leading role. Attention is also devoted to the development of the notarial profession and the bill of exchange. In the 11th century, cities and, by consequence, autonomous and trade-oriented systems of city rights began to gain importance. This evolution which started on the Apennine Peninsula later also took place in the north of Europe, including in the German maritime cities, and eventually brought organisational changes and led to the establishment of the Hanseatic League. Legal regulations embraced, inter alia, the maritime trade. When the first annual fairs were organised, improved safety and decreased toll rates furthered the development of towns situated on trade routes. Changes in the socioeconomic structure and the fall of Constantinople influenced the progressive standardisation of commercial law in different countries. The Greeks brought to the West not only their money and wealth but also their law. In the modern era, the first companies with legal personality appeared. The origins of contemporary Belgian commercial law are without a doubt connected with French law. The French rulers’ protectionist policies, which were characterised by a strong interference in laws regulating trade, were included in the ordinance of 1673, the main drafter of which was Savary, and the ordinance of 1681. Such actions resulted in traders developing their own judicial bodies. The next stage that was important for contemporary Belgian law was the issuing of the Napoleonic Code de Commerce of 1807. The French law was implemented in the parts of the Netherlands conquered by Napoleon. Commercial law courts after the French model were established and were staffed not by professional judges but by entrepreneurs. When the Belgians gained independence in 1830, one of their goals was to implement a new commercial code. In the end, however, they chose a different path – a comprehensive revision of the existing law that continued throughout the following decades. In that process Belgian commercial law was complemented with, among other things, private companies. The changes to the legal code in the 20th century resulted mainly from the developments in international law (e.g. the acceptance of conventions concerning promissory notes) as well as European law. In 1999 company law was transferred from the Code de Commerce to the Companies Code. The French commercial court system was adopted after the Belgian Independence, but during the last two hundred years the organisation of these courts was changed. Although some argue that there is a need for reform and for the removal of non-professional judges, the author of this paper is of the opinion that lay judges are efficient.
Physical description
  • Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium
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Publication order reference
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