Contact with the public
Since its establishment in 1838, the Supreme Court has been one of the authoritative institutions within our democracy under the rule of law in peacetime. The duty of pronouncing justice is part of this system of our society, making it a public duty. The duty that has essentially remained the same since 1838 is that of court of cassation. Over time, however, the Supreme Court’s form and substance have been subjected to changes, including as a result of changes in society. Today, there is no automatic authority. Authority must always be earned, maintained and retained. As stated above, in order to continue to properly perform its public duty on the one hand while remaining an authoritative institution on the other, the Supreme Court must remain, and must aim to remain – visibly, ascertainably and recognisably – in the midst of society. The Supreme Court accomplishes this in different ways.
Publication of rulings, opinions, press releases, tweets, short films and livestreams
In 2019, as well, the Supreme Court and the Procurator General to the Supreme Court published a large number of judgments and opinions. In several cases, these were accompanied by news reports, tweets and/or a brief film from a spokesperson. Two short films providing general information were released: ‘what is an opinion’ and ‘what is cassation in the interest of the law’. Due to the enormous national and international interest in the Urgenda case, the Supreme Court published livestreams of the hearings on its website on two occasions in 2019, one during the oral arguments and the other when judgment was delivered. Several rulings, opinions and news reports were also translated into English and published in 2019 due to the enormous international interest in those cases.
‘Supreme Court for Dummies’ booklet
In 2018, the President and his former personal assistant wrote a booklet entitled De kleine Hoge Raad voor dummies (‘The Pocket-sized Supreme Court for Dummies’). The first print of the booklet was published in January 2019. The booklet’s success is clear: it had already been printed for a fourth time by the summer of 2019. The President’s objective in publishing this booklet for dummies was to introduce the Supreme Court and its work to a larger audience than experienced lawyers. He had noticed, during open houses and lectures, that the impression that many people had of what the Supreme Court is and what it does was either very limited or mistaken. The booklet is therefore intended for people who are interested in the Supreme Court but know little about it. It is important to the Supreme Court that a larger segment of the public knows what it is and what it does. Many of the Supreme Court’s rulings determine how the law develops in the Netherlands, which may be of interest to everyone in our society.
The Dutch daily nationwide newspaper Trouw published an article when the booklet was launched. The President also drew attention to the booklet on an episode of College Tour in Leiden, and he was interviewed about the booklet at the Douwes bookshop in The Hague in March 2019. The booklet was also highlighted during the Lentelezingen (Spring Lectures at Leiden University).
Students and pupils
Educational programmes developed with the Supreme Court’s cooperation were offered through contacts at ProDemos, the House for Democracy and Rule of Law. In 2019 for example, symposia were regularly held at the Supreme Court building. The Supreme Court also has contacts at universities, polytechnics, and secondary schools that have enabled many groups of students and pupils to visit the Supreme Court.
In 2018, the Supreme Court started presenting a series of monthly lectures for a group of around 30 people. The lectures in that year featured special guest speakers who spoke about law-related themes from their specialised fields. Several lectures were organised in 2019 as well. Professor Emeritus Henk Nellen, perhaps the greatest Hugo de Groot scholar in the Netherlands, presented a lecture about Hugo de Groot, Justice Ybo Buruma lectured on four champions of tolerance, Erasmus, Wier, Coornhert and Spinoza, and President Maarten Feteris spoke about the work of the Supreme Court and his ‘Supreme Court for Dummies’ booklet.
Another open house was held on 14 September 2019. The Supreme Court hopes such open houses will increase public familiarity with the legal system. Attendance was comparable to that of the previous year. The entire day comprised a continuous programme of lectures, a roleplaying game in chambers, and hourly meet and greets with justices and advocates general. There was also an information stand, a children’s play area and an opportunity to don judges’ robes and take a selfie.
The use of clear and understandable language is the key to the accessibility of the law and contact with the public. Courts must phrase their rulings so that they are clear. The same clear language must be used by the highest court. This is why the Supreme Court launched the Straightforward Communication project in 2018. The project is aimed at clear, understandable and readable rulings that enable courts’ findings and decisions to be presented more transparently and more effectively. The Straightforward Communication project was continued in 2019 with a series of workshops for justices, research assistants, and the court secretariat.
The project also included an internal competition in which the justices were challenged to rewrite the text of the standard ruling pursuant to Article 81 of the Judiciary Organisation Act (RO Act). This provision regards judgments issued with brief, non-substantive grounds. The Supreme Court applies the provisions in Article 81 of the RO Act if an appeal in cassation is unfounded and does not raise any important new legal issues. A jury led by President Maarten Feteris and consisting of a justice from each division and an external language trainer read and scored the submissions. The jury then examined the winning text more closely and transformed it into a new model text. Afterwards, the jury also examined the language of the ruling dismissing cases pursuant to Article 80a of the RO Act and made it more understandable. This often-applied provision also allows for the abbreviated substantiation of judgments, effecting a sort of ‘selection at the gate’. This means that the Supreme Court dismisses appeals as inadmissible shortly after they are received if the complaints obviously cannot result in cassation or if the party has an obviously insufficient interest in its appeal in cassation. The new standard rulings dismissing cases pursuant to Article 81 or Article 80a of the RO Act were definitively adopted after a consultation round within the divisions of the Supreme Court.
Publication of yet unreported judgments
In 2019, the Supreme Court made further progress towards publishing a large number of important unreported judgments online. Supreme Court rulings have been published in anonymised form at rechtspraak.nl since 2000. Prior to that, judgments were published virtually exclusively through the editors of law-oriented publishers. Although these publishers did make several judgments available online, often in edited form, these were kept in a database which required a subscription to access. The Supreme Court believes it has a public duty to make many of these important older judgments available online (free of charge). The Supreme Court itself took the initial steps towards this in 2018 by preparing a list of more than 500 judgments. Others were then afforded the opportunity to add judgments to this list. The Supreme Court published the first 150 older judgments, including the opinions rendered by advocates general to the Supreme Court, in December 2019. The Supreme Court also published a news report about this.
These 150 judgments included 6 landmark judgments, these being the judgments in Ermes et al.-Haviltex (civil), Kelderluik (civil), Lindenbaum-Cohen (civil), Auditu (criminal), Meerenberg (criminal) and Cessna (tax). The judgment in Lindenbaum-Cohen was the first in this project of the aforementioned six landmark judgments published online, on its 100th anniversary on 31 January 2019. The Supreme Court will carry on digitising the most important unreported judgments in 2020, working back year by year starting with 1999.
The Story of The Hague
In December 2019, the Supreme Court contributed to ‘The Story of the Hague’ (Haags Verhaal), a project to collect photos and life stories. The Story of The Hague is divided into two parts: the photo project and storytelling evenings. The project is intended to encourage people who live and/or work in The Hague to venture, in a relaxed and positive manner, beyond the normal boundaries of their lives and experience different worlds within the city.
The photo project
The Hague illustrated through 155 group photos of communities that live and/or work in the city. In 2021, the photos will be assembled in an album and an exhibition travelling through the city. The Supreme Court contributed to the project by having a photo taken of 21 justices, including the president, and the registrar of the Supreme Court in their robes.
The life stories project
A storytelling evening with several Supreme Court justices and volunteers from the legal aid society Stichting de Haagse Wetswinkel was held on the evening of Monday, 9 December. The legal chain that starts with legal aid volunteers ends with the Supreme Court.
Storytelling evenings always comprise two life stories. On this occasion, one was presented by Vice President Willem van Schendel, who spoke not only about the Supreme Court and his work for the Criminal Division, but also about his personal life. Johanny Nicastia works as a volunteer at the Wetswinkel, as secretary to the board of directors. He spoke about the society and his work, as well as about his personal life.
The Supreme Court considered its participation in this project to be important. The Story of the Hague is also seeking to make connections by photographing communities within the city and getting them talking with one another. The Supreme Court is one of those communities. Although it projects a national image, it is rooted at the centre of the institutions comprising our democracy under the rule of law, which is why it was so gratified to participate in the project.
The Supreme Court on social media
The Supreme Court has long used Twitter for both professional communication and as a tool in press briefings. The Supreme Court can now be found on other social media channels, such as Facebook and Instagram, and it has a business account on LinkedIn. Having a social media presence offers a variety of opportunities and possibilities, enabling the Supreme Court to tailor its message to various target audiences and thereby share Supreme Court news as soon as possible after it happens.