Telephone services and legal costs: the pot and the kettle

As part of last weekend’s budgetary control, the Government unilaterally and without any kind of prior consultation decided to significantly cut the legal costs it pays the operators for their information. This decision comes in the footsteps of another unilateral reduction of the legal costs just a year ago. KPN/BASE deplores this approach by the Government, which overlooks the structural reasons behind the costs as well as the amount of the legal costs involved, and which is at risk of exacerbating the situation even further, with the upshot that these expenses will go up. Consequently, KPN/BASE would like to invite the Government to reconsider its decision and to engage in dialogue with the telecom operators to find structural solutions to the problems that exist.

The facts

The budget of the Justice Department, the costs it incurs and the financing problems it faces are making the headlines on and off. Everybody is all for an efficacious justice system, but the question is how to achieve this. Last October, the Committee for the Modernisation of the Judiciary returned a report on the topic of legal costs (http://bit.ly/v6KrUFhttp://bit.ly/vUzVL1). This report raises questions as to the efficacy of the department and as to the coherence of the way it operates. Yet again, the biggest expenditure is the post of telephone services. 36% of the total budget …. Which makes one think. Obviously this calls for a response.

Relations between the world of the judiciary and the telecommunications industry are straightforward. One might say: ‘They command, we act’. Nothing more, nothing less. When, for juridical reasons, we are called upon by the competent authorities to communicate the details of our customers, we deliver: times when calls were made, call or text message recipients, IP address checks, phone tapping, etc. As imposed by law, every operator has a dedicated ‘Justice Cell’ in place in its organisation, whose remit is to handle all of these requests. This matter has been regulated by the Government (time limits, designated staff, technical standards). The Government has also determined the amount that the operators are allowed to bill for each of these services. These amounts are supposed to cover the costs incurred by the operators in providing these services. Ultimately however, it is the principle of the matter … In the same way as the police forces up and down the country pay for the fuel or servicing of their patrol cars.  KPN/BASE has invested a considerable amount of time and money to enable us to comply with the requests from the judiciary in the best way possible whilst vouching for the protection of our customers’ details, thanks to competent human resources and hi-tech IT infrastructure that are committed to this end.

Where things go wrong

In the last report of the Committee for the Modernisation of the Judiciary, the Committee Chairman stated: ‘We need to look at who asks what from whom’. To KPN/BASE, this is the crucial question, especially when it comes to telecommunications. The number of applications that reach us in twofold or in triplicate is simply legion. We routinely get erroneous applications (applications sent to KPN/BASE whereas the number is that of a Belgacom customer) or poorly drafted applications. The operators get requests for information that cover very long time frames and that are consequently not necessarily pertinent, pointing up discomfiting differences in the manner of operation and applications between the various legal districts. What a waste of money, time and energy … One might say that ultimately it is for the State to spend its money the way it sees fit and it is for the State to decide what it is asking for and how it submits these requests. Yet, the truth of it is that the State pays randomly for the services rendered, not to mention increasingly late (8 months). The outstanding sums can run up several tens if not hundreds of thousands of euros. To the telecom operators, this situation is fast becoming unsustainable. 

How to resolve the situation?   

The issue of the legal costs involved in telecommunications services is not new. The fact that these outlays are so high is not tenable in the long term and we need to consider ways of reducing them. KPN/BASE believes that all parties should be involved in this mind-mining exercise. Just over a year and a half ago, a working group was put in place under the aegis of the Belgian Institute for Postal Services and Telecommunications, bringing together all stakeholders concerned with a view to devising structural solutions. The Government threw a spanner in the works of this collaborative effort when it unilaterally decided to reduce the flat-rate amounts billed for the three main posts by 30% without closely examining matters. The Government vilified the telecom operators as the sole parties responsible for these unduly high costs. KPN/BASE deplored this decision but took note.

Further to last weekend’s budgetary conclave, the operators are again set to be hit by the unilateral reduction of the legal costs. Again, the Government has acted without consulting with the operators and without looking into structural solutions that could be implemented at the Justice Department itself in order to improve the process, and to effect structural economies in doing so. We can only deplore this decision, which runs counter to good governance. KPN/BASE deplores the absence of consultation surrounding the Government’s decision and wonders whether the latter has given any thought to the direct effects of this decision to the detriment of the judicial authorities themselves.

Leave a Comment