The Dutch court system
The court system in the Netherlands comprises different areas of law and a variety of bodies. Judges are independent and cannot be dismissed by the Minister of Justice and Security.
Areas of law
- Civil law (also known as private law)
Civil law is the umbrella term for the law dealing with conflicts between individual members of the public and/or organisations. The government is working to achieve faster and simpler procedures for straightforward civil disputes.
- Administrative law
Administrative law prescribes the rules that public authorities must keep to in their decision-making and regulates relations between government and citizens. The most important of these rules are laid down in the General Administrative Law Act (AWB).
- Criminal law
Criminal law deals with offences ranging from minor infringements such as failure to stop at a red light to serious offences such as drug trafficking, theft and murder. Cases are brought before the courts by the Public Prosecution Service.
Organisational structure of the courts
The Netherlands is divided into 11 district courts, 4 courts of appeal and 1 Supreme Court. Most cases start at a district court. Every district court has a limited jurisdiction sector, which hears cases such as employment or rent disputes, and civil cases involving claims of up to €25,000. This sector also hears cases involving minor criminal offences (misdemeanours).
To safeguard the quality of the justice system and to make the courts accessible to everyone, the Netherlands is divided into jurisdictions. This division determines, among other things, which district court will hear a given case.
Appeal and cassation
If one of the parties disagrees with the court’s ruling, the case may be referred to a court of appeal and subsequently, through an appeal in cassation, to the Supreme Court.
Other courts in the Netherlands
Besides these courts, the Netherlands has a number of other judicial bodies. The Central Appeals Court for Public Service and Social Security Matters deals with appeals in cases involving public servants and social security cases. The Administrative Court for Trade and Industry hears cases relating to socioeconomic administrative law. The Administrative Jurisdiction Division of the Council of State is the highest administrative court. The Council of State is not part of the organisational structure of the judiciary.
Contact point and spokesperson for the justice system
The Council for the Judiciary is the central contact point for the judiciary and also acts as its spokesperson in the political and public debate. The Council protects the common interests of the judicial bodies and oversees provisions applying to courts across the board. It also supervises operational management and financial administration.
Disposal of cases by the Public Prosecution Service (OM): penalties imposed by the OM
In the Netherlands, the Public Prosecution Service has the authority to impose penalties for a number of common criminal offences. The OM may not impose custodial (i.e. prison) sentences. Municipal authorities and special enforcement officers also have the authority to impose penalties of this kind. They can issue an administrative penalty for antisocial behaviour; for instance, they can fine someone for noise nuisance. They can also issue a ‘police penalty’ for so-called ‘P offences’, which are offences like speeding that used to be punished with on-the-spot fines.
The OM may impose a range of penalties. Examples include:
- a fine;
- an alternative sanction (of up to 180 hours);
- a driving ban (of up to 6 months);
- payment of compensation to the victim;
- an anti-social behaviour or intervention order (such as football banning order or mandatory participation in a drug rehabilitation programme).
Simplified procedure for civil disputes
The costs, the formal nature and the complexity of judicial proceedings can often discourage private individuals and commercial companies from taking cases to court. This certainly applies when the costs are higher than any money that might be awarded. Take the case of a consumer who has a dispute with a company for which no disputes committee exists, and wants to take his grievance to court. To make it easier to resolve these cases within the legal system, the government wants to make the procedures for straightforward disputes between members of the public and/or organisations (that is, civil disputes) faster and less complicated.
Register of experts
If the courts are to do their work properly, they are dependent on experts. So judicial bodies need a reliable register of persons with the right expertise: the Netherlands Register of Court Experts (NRGD). Is an expert needed to testify in a criminal case? Then a judge, a lawyer, or the Public Prosecution Service, for instance, can consult this register. The NRGD lists experts in areas such as DNA testing, forensic psychology, psychiatry or handwriting analysis.
Interpreters and translators
For court cases in which one of the parties does not have an adequate command of Dutch, the government has set up a register of court interpreters and sworn translators. In cases involving criminal or aliens law, the courts, the Public Prosecution Service, the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND), the police and the Royal Military and Border Police can only use interpreters and translators whose names are listed in this register. In civil cases this is not mandatory.
Using the register, litigants (such as private individuals and enterprises) and people providing legal services (such as lawyers) can easily find an interpreter or translator who fulfils the requirements of integrity and quality laid down in the Sworn Interpreters and Translators Act.
The register of court interpreters and sworn translators (only in Dutch) can in fact be accessed by any member of the public and can be found on the website of the bureau for sworn interpreters and translators.