Nederlands vs Amerikaans rechtssysteem

If you frequently watch crime series, documentaries, or movies, you might have noticed that the American legal system operates differently from the Dutch legal system.

These differences encompass how trials proceed, the variations in the role of the Dutch and American judges, and the way sentences are determined. In this article, we'll outline some of the notable differences.

Common Law vs. Civil Law

The legal system in the United States is based on common law. When a case is filed, the basic premise is that similar cases should be handled according to consistent rules. The judge acts as a mediator between the two contesting parties (the attorneys). The judge reviews the motions of the attorneys according to the law but typically doesn't make a judgment independently. Law formation is based on precedents set by judges in the past. The judge's legal rulings are, therefore, primary in this system. However, this doesn't mean there are no laws. The existing laws are interpreted as restrictively as possible, leaving most decisions to the judge. The Dutch system, on the other hand, is based on civil law, with legislation and legal formation established in legal codes. Generally, the existing laws and regulations are the basis, and a judge only provides further interpretation when the laws are not clear.

Jury Trials

You might have heard someone in an American movie or series complain about 'jury duty.' In America, there is a system of jury trials. Every adult citizen has jury duty and can be summoned to participate in a jury. In principle, you cannot ignore or refuse this summons, as it's considered contempt of court. Only urgent medical reasons are grounds for being excused from jury duty. There is a screening process beforehand where both parties and the judge evaluate whether a candidate is biased about the case. For example, if a candidate is entirely against the death penalty and states that they will not consider it, they'll be 'challenged' (dismissed from jury duty). This is because a death penalty can only be issued if the jury unanimously agrees. Also, if a candidate has friendly or family ties to any of the parties involved, they will be dismissed from their jury duty.

Therefore, the jury comprises laypeople, or 'ordinary' individuals. This group decides if the defendant is guilty. Once the jury determines guilt, the judge then decides on the penalty. Unlike many other European countries, jury trials are not utilized in the Netherlands. Interestingly, in the American system, the jury doesn't participate in the trial when an individual goes into appeal.

Plea Bargain

Another term you often hear is 'plea deal' or 'plea bargain.' This is when a suspect admits guilt to strike a deal with the prosecutor for a reduced sentence. This allows the suspect to avoid a jury trial and relinquish the right to appeal. The United States has developed an extensive system around plea bargaining to expedite trials. This does not occur in the Netherlands.

The Death Penalty

In the Netherlands, the death penalty was abolished in 1870. However, in 29 of the 50 United States of America, the death penalty is still in practice. Each state can partly determine its laws, which is why the application of the death penalty varies by state. Examples of crimes that could warrant the death penalty include murder, kidnapping involving violence, rape of someone under the age of twelve, treason, airplane hijacking, and espionage.

Minimum and Maximum Sentences

In the United States, a state must at least comply with the minimum sentence set by the federal government. Moreover, each state can determine its own sentences. In the Netherlands, the system is the opposite, with set maximum penalties. The judge can decide the sentence for a case as long as it doesn't exceed the maximum.

If you're curious about how a trial proceeds, both in the Netherlands and the United States, trials are generally public. Therefore, if you're in America, you could attend a trial, which could be highly interesting and educational.

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