VU alumnus Dineke de Groot is the first woman president of the Supreme Court of the Netherlands: „Having been appointed to this position is no big deal, yet special at the same time."
If you had to explain in just a few sentences what makes the law such a valuable resource, what would you say?
„That’s a pretty hard opening question; it’s actually easier to talk about the merits of the judicial system. The law can be used in both rightful and wrongful ways. As far as I am concerned, law should primarily serve the people. It’s not a standalone concept like art or literature, which were created for enjoyment and pleasure; I see the law as being an integral part of society. It serves to organise people’s interactions with one another and can have a huge impact in people’s lives."
Why did you choose to study law when you were younger?
„When I was in my penultimate year of secondary school, I went to a couple of taster days at several universities. I knew I liked languages, and it also seemed to make sense to check out the Law faculty. I remember it well: I was seated in a lecture theatre on the ground floor of the VU’s main building. Lecturers Tineke Splinter and Jaap Doek were there to tell the students what studying Law at VU was all about. The stories they told were very spirited and engaging and very much focused on the social aspects of the law; they didn’t just talk about the judicial system and the law in an abstract sense, but also about the impact of the law on people’s lives. That’s when I thought to myself: 'If this is what studying law is really like, it must be pretty interesting.'"
You hold two degrees: while studying Law, you also pursued an Arts degree, first at VU Amsterdam and later in Vienna. What made you decide to study Arts?
„It turned out that studying law wasn’t nearly as much fun as I’d thought. We didn’t spend a lot of time in class, and it all felt very abstract to me, which meant I couldn’t really connect with it. It wasn’t as though I didn’t enjoy it at all, but I felt it simply wasn’t challenging enough for me."
„I also missed studying languages, because in my last year of secondary school I took six languages, along with history. In Ad Valvas, the college newspaper, I read that the university was introducing a new, flexible Arts degree course. The course was designed to suit the needs of individual students, and it seemed easy to combine it with my Law studies, so I enrolled in this flexible programme when I was in my second year at university. I chose German as my major, and also took classes in Spanish, History, Art History, and Linguistics. I ended up with a group of first-year German students in a cramped classroom. Since there were only around eight of us, we had lots of personal interaction with our lecturers. Those humanities courses added the variety I was looking for, which made my law studies suddenly more appealing."
„Research has shown that generally speaking, people with lower levels of formal education have less faith in public institutions than their more educated counterparts."
You have since embarked on a brilliant legal career. When you became president of the Supreme Court (the body that assesses whether lower courts, in delivering their judgments, have applied the law correctly and complied with the procedures) and gave your inaugural address, you highlighted the importance of public trust in the courts. You addressed the differences between people’s trust in the court system based on their level of formal education.
„The Dutch public generally has a lot of trust in the judiciary. What’s important is retaining that trust and knowing what we can do when that trust is lost or undermined. Research has shown that generally speaking, people with lower levels of formal education have less faith in public institutions than their more educated counterparts. I should add, though, that this phenomenon is by no means unique to the Netherlands. In my address, I underscored the importance of learning more about this phenomenon. We don’t really know if this is the case because those who are less educated are more likely to have had dealings with the court system."
„If we look at trust in the judiciary, we need to answer the question as to what users of the legal system need in order to be satisfied with the way their case was handled, so they can get on with their lives and leave the case behind them. I feel that’s important, because the courts are there for the public, and one of the functions of the legal system is allowing people to pick up their lives again, also after a conflict."
Can you do something for these people, in practical terms?
„The Supreme Court introduced a new system several years ago: “prejudicial questions to the Supreme Court.” If a particular legal question is relevant to a lot of different cases, a district court or court of appeal can submit one of these questions relating to a case to the Supreme Court. Whether or not the question actually reaches the Court then no longer depends on whether the parties end up taking their case to the Supreme Court. We have found that people ask questions about issues such as debt rescheduling, consumer law, and financial guardianship. In asking these prejudicial questions, the judge in question also highlights the issues that matter in terms of legal protection. The tool is sometimes also used in cases where new legislation raises important legal issues for the courts."
„Resistance makes it easier for you to see whether the changes you’re considering are really necessary, and, if so, what those changes should involve."
You won the Innovation Award, presented by the Nederlandse Juristen-Vereniging (Dutch Lawyers Association) in 2018. Why is innovation so important in the judicial system?
„I don’t think innovation is a goal in itself, but once you’ve decided to make certain changes, I think it’s a good idea to get together with others to see if you’re doing it right, or if there might be better alternatives available. I think that kind of flexibility and desire for collaboration are part of my nature. For example, I enjoyed working on developing an electronic litigation system for the Supreme Court. Electronic litigation is currently available in all three legal areas: civil law, criminal law, and tax law. It allows parties to legal proceedings to submit cases electronically, access their electronic files, and upload or download documents anywhere, anytime."
„I should add that I don’t believe you always need to come up with a new solution to everything. If, say, something goes wrong but it’s merely a one-off, I don’t think you need to think of a long-term solution right off the bat."
Do you ever get pushback when you try to introduce changes?
„Absolutely – I’ve certainly had to deal with resistance at times. But there’s value in that resistance as well, as it makes it easier for you to see whether the changes you’re considering are really necessary, and, if so, what those changes should involve. When developing the electronic litigation system, for example, it was helpful that future users of the Supreme Court’s web portal were able to see at an early stage in the process what the system would look like and was capable of, and told us what problems they felt the introduction of mandatory electronic litigation would create."
You are the first woman president of the Supreme Court since it was established in 1838. What’s it like to be the first woman to hold this position?
„I would say it’s no big deal, and yet special at the same time.’ It’s “special” to be witness to that milestone, all the more if you are the woman who’s being appointed! And it’s “no big deal” in the sense that – fortunately – it’s self-evident now that both men and women can be appointed to this kind of position. In appointing me, the Supreme Court demonstrates its central position in a society that values equal opportunity for men and women."
„Whenever I meet new people as part of my job, the subject often comes up that I’m the first woman president."
„Whenever I meet new people as part of my job, the subject often comes up that I’m the first woman president. I like the fact that others respond pretty much the same way as me: “There is nothing special about it and yet it’s special.” I get the sense that, while many people feel it’s important that a woman can attain such a senior position, they also like the fact that we can then go back to talking about the actual role of president, which happens to be held by a woman right now. Because it’s really all about the position rather than the person."
A president is appointed for six years. What would you like your legacy to be, when people reflect back on your presidency down the line? What would you like to have accomplished?
„At the end of their tenure, I think it’s important for any president to leave the Supreme Court in as good a shape as they found it when they started, if not better. That’s by no means self-evident. One of the main responsibilities of a Supreme Court president is ensuring that the Court can continue to fulfil its role within the rule of law and within society and can continue to fulfil their main duties in relation to legal uniformity, the development of law, and legal protection. These are also key focus areas of the president within the network of courts of cassation in the European Union, based on the importance of people being able to live with each other in peace and safety. If I can play a role in contributing to that continuity and consistency, I’m already very grateful."