Judicial level 3
Judicial level 2 (higher appeal)
Judicial level 1 (first instance)
There are 19 courts in the Netherlands. Each covers part of the country. Each judicial area is known as an ‘arrondissement’ (district). Each court has a main seat and a number of branches. In around sixty municipalities there are court buildings, and often this is where the district judge holds session.
The court (official name: ‘arrondissementsrechtbank’ or district court) hears cases in the field of civil, criminal and administrative law. The size of courts varies quite widely. The smaller ones employ around 150 people, and the larger more than 900. In charge of the management of a court is its presiding judge.
Each court consists of four divisions: district, civil, criminal and administrative.
Matters dealt with by the district division include:
- money claims up to €5000;
- leasing of residential and business premises;
- employment, including pay claims and cancellation of contracts of employment;
- administration of the affairs, and guardianship, of adults;
- provisions giving authority over illegitimate children.
The judges in this division are called district judges. They sit alone and reach their verdicts alone. A district judge therefore has to handle a case completely independently. For this reason, district judges always have wide previous experience as civil-law judges, say elsewhere in the judiciary, or as barristers.
All other disputes in private law are handled in the civil division. The main issues which you may have to deal with are:
- financial disputes with more than €5000 at stake;
- inheritance disputes;
- family law disputes such as:
- custody of minors and access provisions;
- amendment of matrimonial conditions; and
The rest of this summary ignores the criminal and administrative law divisions.
A division is further divided into smaller units called ‘kamers’ (chambers). These have a more or less fixed membership of three judges who rule jointly on disputes under the chairmanship of a deputy presiding judge. Chambers are mainly concerned with one or more subjects. A civil division of a court will, for example, have a chamber which deals solely with family law disputes (the family chamber). Another chamber will handle money claims, building law, insurance law or expropriation law.
Another component of the civil division deals with claims of an urgent nature: this is the judge for interim injunctions. This judge reaches a decision within two weeks. Matters referred may be commercial or family cases. A petition for interim relief is sometimes filed, pending further proceedings.
Proceedings brought before a court are dealt with by one judge or by a ‘chamber’ of three judges. Parties in proceedings in the district division always come before one judge at the hearing and at the time of pronouncement of the judgment. This is known as ‘enkelvoudig’, i.e. the administration of justice by one judge. In the civil division, one judge rules in relatively simple matters. The treatment of a complex case is ‘meervoudig’, in other words it is handled by a chamber of three judges.
Anyone appealing against a judgment of an ordinary court must refer to a higher court. The Netherlands has five higher courts. They are: Amsterdam, The Hague, Arnhem, Leeuwarden and Den Bosch. Their jurisdiction is known as the ‘ressort’. A higher court deals with civil appeals referred up from the ordinary court.
Just as in the ordinary courts, the judges of the higher courts work in different divisions. For example, each higher court has a civil, a criminal and a tax division. A higher court division may in turn be divided into ‘chambers’, consisting of three members, who jointly settle a dispute.
The Dutch supreme court is called the ‘Hoge Raad der Nederlanden’, or Hoge Raad for short. The business of the Hoge Raad is the case-law of cassation: the quashing of judgments. It is never the Hoge Raad’s business to establish the facts in a dispute. Instead, given the facts found by the lower judge, it examines whether the other judges applied the law properly. The Hoge Raad is not organised into divisions, but into chambers. Thus there is a chamber dealing with civil matters. Judgments of the Hoge Raad are given by three judges. In special cases, at the Hoge Raad’s discretion, five judges will deal with a case.
In principle, each party is entitled to due process of law, at courts of three instances. At the court of first instance, the case will be heard in the district or civil division, depending on the nature of the case brought before the judge. A higher appeal can be lodged at the higher court. After that, an appeal for cassation can be made to the Hoge Raad.
Besides, a matter is not always eligible for higher appeal, say when the dispute concerns a sum of money of less than €1750. However, referral to the Hoge Raad for cassation is always possible if a party considers that the judgment does not state the grounds on which it was based.
If, after a ruling by a higher court, a party wishes to refer to the Hoge Raad, this is not described as a higher appeal, but as ‘going to cassation’. The Hoge Raad is the supreme judicial body of the Netherlands. Hence, after judgment by the Hoge Raad, there is no possibility of referring the same problem to any other court. If the Hoge Raad feels that the lower judge made a wrong decision, it may certainly refer the case back to a lower court for review of the substance of the matter. Again, appeal to the Hoge Raad is possible against a new ruling.
The ordinary and appeal courts are known as ‘feitenrechters’ – judges of fact. This means that these judicial authorities investigate the full facts of cases brought before them. Such investigation means, in any case, that the judges will establish what the facts of the dispute are. If, for example, a party alleges that a car has been bought with faulty brakes and steering, the judge may arrange for witnesses to attend who can provide more information about the car’s condition. Thus these courts deal with the gathering of facts. They try to establish, as far as possible, what exactly happened. Judgment is delivered on the basis of these facts.
The Hoge Raad does not judge facts. Its task is to consider whether the lower judges, the judges of fact, have done their job properly. In other words, the Hoge Raad ensures that the lower judges have applied the law correctly.
This task means that a party cannot apply to the Hoge Raad for further investigation of the facts. If a party disagrees with the judgment of the highest judge of facts, it is certainly possible to refer the dispute to the Hoge Raad, but the party can only contend that the lower court misread private law and therefore gave an unfair judgment. Such a case is called a misapplication of the law.
The parties, the citizens involved, can conduct their own cases if they come before the district division of the court. However, a summons must always be served on the opposing party by a bailiff. In family matters, a written petition to the judge will often suffice.
At the other instances, parties in private-law cases cannot represent themselves. They have to appoint a counsel (who, in practice, will be a barrister) to bring the case before the judge.
Judgments of a district division or ordinary court are called ‘vonnissen’ (judgments), whereas judgments of a higher court or of the Hoge Raad are called ‘arresten’. In family cases, judgments are often known as orders or decrees (‘beschikkingen’).
It is commonly said that a judge is appointed for life. In practice, this means that he cannot be dismissed until retirement at 70, regardless of how well he judges. He can certainly be suspended or dismissed if his behaviour conflicts with what the law requires of him. The supreme court, the Hoge Raad, decides on such suspension or dismissal.
Judges are expected to reach their verdicts and issue their rulings independently. Another principle is that the judgment of a judge can only be amended by judgment of another judge.
The Minister of Justice or other member of the executive has no power whatsoever to dismiss a judge, and no power over the content of a judgment or amendment thereof. Therefore there are guarantees that the judiciary can do its work independently.
The Council for the Administration of Justice (‘Raad voor de Rechtspraak’) is an organ of central government with powers in the field of administration of justice. The Council forms part of the judiciary and is not answerable to any other arm of government. Its general task is to promote proper fulfilment by the courts of their judicial task. The Council itself fulfils no judicial tasks.
The financial resources for the administration of justice are set annually by statute. The Council distributes the funds among the courts. The Council is accountable to the Minister of Justice for the spending of these resources. The Council also looks after the common interests of the courts in external relations. It provides facilities used by all or some of the courts (such as training and ICT). It supervises the courts’ management and financial control, and gives the courts general instructions as necessary.
The Minister of Justice is politically responsible for the proper functioning of the judicial system. He is answerable for this to parliament. An important part of his brief is to ensure that the judiciary receives sufficient financial resources to do its work properly. He can also draft legislation when this is deemed necessary to the better administration of justice.
The organisation of justice has its own website, which gives further information about the courts.
Other relevant websites are:
Last update: 25-04-2005