The organisation of the civil and the criminal courts in Holland is based on the administration of justice in three steps. A case is heard first by a lower court. If a party does not agree with the judgment, he may refer the matter to a higher court. This is called entering an appeal. Thereafter it is possible in certain circumstances to refer a dispute to the highest court, the Supreme Court. This is known as appealing in cassation.
District Courts (Rechtbank)
The Netherlands is divided into 10 districts, each with its own court: Amsterdam, Noord-Holland, Den Haag, Midden-Nederland, Rotterdam, Zeeland-West Brabant, Oost-Brabant, Limburg, Oost-Nederland and Noord-Nederland. Each court has a number of subdistrict venues. The District Court is made up of a maximum of five sectors. These always include the administrative sector, civil sector, criminal sector and subdistrict sector. Family and juvenile cases are often put into a separate sector, as is sometimes the case with the administration of the law concerning aliens. The court council is free to determine such matters.
- Subdistrict (Sector Kanton)
It is relatively simple for ordinary citizens to have their case heard in the subdistrict sector. This means that they have the right to argue their own case and do not need a lawyer to represent them in court. In terms of civil law, the subdistrict judge (Kantonrechter) deals with all cases involving rents, hire purchase and employment. He also deals with all conflicts involving an amount fewer than 25,000 euros.
In criminal law, the subdistrict judge only deals with minor offences, not serious offences. Often these are cases in which the police or the public prosecutor has proposed a settlement. If the accused refuses to accept such a proposal, then the case comes before the subdistrict judge. The subdistrict judge usually delivers an oral judgement immediately after the session.
- Criminal law
The judges of the criminal law sector deal with all criminal cases which do not come before the subdistrict judge. These cases can be heard in single-judge divisions or in full-bench divisions with three judges. The full-bench division deals with more complex cases and all cases in which the prosecution demands a sentence of more than one year’s imprisonment.
- Civil law/family law
The civil sector also handles cases not specifically allocated to the subdistrict judge. Most of these cases are decided by a single judge, but here too there are full-bench divisions with three judges to deal with more complex cases. A number of district courts have a separate sector for family and juvenile cases, when the number of such cases is considerable.
Sometimes it is necessary to obtain an interlocutory judgment at very short notice. These proceedings are referred to as ‘summary proceedings’. Summary proceedings are usually held before a single judge, with the president of the court or his deputy as judge.
- Administrative law
With only a handful of exceptions, administrative disputes are heard by the district court; in many cases the hearing by the administrative law sector is preceded by an objection procedure under the auspices of the administrative authorities. It is usual for these cases to be heard by a single-judge division, but here too the district court can decide to appoint three judges to a case which is complex or which involves fundamental issues. If the district court in question has no separate sector to handle cases governed by the law concerning aliens, such cases are dealt with by the administrative law sector or a division thereof. In cases involving civil servants and social security issues, appeal is a matter for a special appeals tribunal, the Central Appeals Tribunal (Centrale Raad van Beroep), and in most other cases for the Administrative Jurisdiction Division of the Council of State (Afdeling Rechtspraak van de Raad van State).
Courts of Appeal (Gerechtshof)
The 10 districts are divided into four areas of Court of Appeal jurisdiction: The Hague, Amsterdam, Arnhem-Leeuwarden and Den Bosch. With regard to criminal and civil law, the justices of the Court of Appeal only deal with cases where an appeal has been lodged against the judgement passed by the District Court. The Court of Appeal re-examines the facts of the case and reaches its own conclusions. In most cases it is possible to contest the Court of Appeal’s decision by appealing in cassation to the Supreme Court of the Netherlands. In addition to criminal and civil cases, the Court of Appeal also deals with all appeals against tax assessments, in its capacity as administrative court.
The Central Appeals Tribunal (Centrale Raad van Beroep) is a board of appeal which is mainly active in legal areas pertaining to social security and the civil service. In these areas it is the highest judicial authority. The Tribunal is based in Utrecht.
The Trade and Industry Appeals Tribunal (College van Beroep voor het Bedrijfsleven) is a special administrative court which rules on disputes in the area of social-economic administrative law. In addition this appeals tribunal also rules on appeals for specific laws, such as the Competition Act and the Telecommunications Act. The Tribunal is based in The Hague.
The Supreme Court (Hoge Raad)
The Supreme Court of the Netherlands, located in The Hague, examines whether the lower court observed proper application of the law in reaching its decision. At this stage, the facts of the case as established by the lower court are no longer subject to discussion. The appeal in cassation therefore fulfills an important function in promoting unity of law.