Constitutional Court Rules on Language Use on Labels, Operation Instructions and Certificates of Guarantee

On 5 October 2011, the Constitutional Court ruled on the use of language on labels, operation instructions and certificates of guarantee.

Article 13 of the (now repealed) Law on Unfair Trade Practices (Wet van 14 juli 1991 betreffende de handelspraktijken en de voorlichting en bescherming van de consument/Loi du 14 juillet 1991 sur les pratiques du commerce et sur l’information et la protection du consommateur) required labels, operation instructions and certificates of guarantee to be drafted at least in the language(s) of the linguistic region where the products or services were being provided. Accordingly, in a bilingual region such as Brussels, the label had to be bilingual.

In imposing this language requirement, the Law on Unfair Trade Practices precluded traders from using labels that contain other means to inform consumers than language, such as drawings, pictograms or symbols. For this reason, the Court of Justice of the European Union held twice that a rule such as that provided for in Article 13 of the Law on Unfair Trade Practices is contrary to European law (See, cases C-85/94, PIAGEME VZW and Others v. Peeters BVBA, and C-33/97, Colim NV v. Bigg’s Continent Noord NV). For its part, the European Commission initiated an infringement procedure against Belgium for the same reason.

To avoid further problems, Article 10 of the (new) Law of 6 April 2010 on Market Practices and Consumer Protection (Wet van 6 april 2010 betreffende marktpraktijken en consumentenbescherming/Loi du 6 avril 2010 relative aux pratiques du marché et à la protection du consommateur - the “Law of 6 April 2010”) provides that labels must be at least in a language that is “comprehensible for the average consumer”, having regard to the linguistic region where the products or services are being provided. This new wording no longer precludes the use of drawings, pictograms or symbols.

The action before the Constitutional Court had been brought by the Flemish lobby group “Vlaams Komitee voor Brussel VZW”, which claimed that Article 10 of the Law of 6 April 2010 was aimed at accommodating French or English labelling. Having regard to the vast majority of French-speaking inhabitants in Brussels, the lobby group claimed that French would be “comprehensible for the average consumer” in Brussels and that, as a result, labelling in Dutch would no longer be necessary in Brussels under the Law of 6 April 2010.

The Constitutional Court dismissed the claim, clarifying that the legislator never intended to reduce the rights of Dutch speakers in Brussels or in other bilingual areas. The Constitutional Court explained that the sole reason why the wording of the provision concerned had been changed is to avoid an infringement of European law.