The Legal System Goes Digital

Jetske Heikens

As from 1 September 2017 commercial cases exceeding a value of EUR 25,000 heard by the courts of Midden-Nederland (Utrecht) and Gelderland can only be filed electronically. By simplifying and digitising procedural law the legislator aims at expediting civil law proceedings (among other things).

Digital litigation will be introduced in phases and by area of law, and will eventually be adopted by all courts in the Netherlands. Civil litigants are exempt from the obligation to file cases electronically, they may also file written documents. Claimants start civil proceedings by submitting a form using the online portal. This form is called the ‘initiating document’ and will replace the writ of summons. Just like the writ of summons, the initiating document must state the names of the parties, the claims, grounds, evidence and dates for the court appearance of the defendant(s). Evidence may be added. Next, an invitation to raise a defence will be included in the digital casefile. The claimant can send this invitation to the defendant within two weeks, by post or by e-mail. If the defendant then (using the online portal) registers in the online casefile, there is no need for a bailiff. However, if the defendant does not register, the invitation must be served by a bailiff after all. In matters before the sub-district court the defendant has four weeks after appearing to file a defence, six weeks in other cases.  After the defence has been added to the online file, the Court will hear the case. During the hearing, the parties are given the opportunity to expand on their positions, answer questions of the Court and/or have witnesses and experts examined by the Court. The Court may also ask the parties to try and reach a settlement. If no settlement can be reached, the Court will decide. In complicated cases the Court may decide to extend the proceedings (for instance by inserting an additional round during which the parties can expand on their arguments or during which (more) witnesses or experts can be heard). The parties can always check the online casefile for the latest status.

With the introduction of online litigation, terms have been tightened up, also for the Court. Courts are expected to review cases at an early stage to decide what needs to be done to handle the dispute efficiently. Where necessary, the Court will request any missing information though the digital system, and set terms. In this way, unnecessary delays can be avoided and the Courts will have the information they believe to be essential for the proper handling of the case even before the hearing.

It might take lawyers some getting used to, but hopefully digital litigation will indeed result in more efficient proceedings and thus quicker rulings.

Jetske Heikens

19 September 2017

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