How to write a book on one’s own legal system for the purposes of comparative law?

On insights gained after writing The Criminal Justice system of the Netherlands: Organization, substantive criminal law, criminal procedure and sanctions (Piet Hein van Kempen, Maartje Krabbe & Sven Brinkhoff (eds.), Antwerp/Cambridge: Intersentia, 2019)

Intro

In the last days of 2019 The Criminal Justice System of the Netherlands: Organization, substantive criminal law, criminal procedure and sanctions  was published. The book is an extended version of its prequel: The Dutch Criminal Justice System (Wolf Legal Publishers, 2008), which was written by Peter Tak, Professor Emeritus of Criminal Law from Radboud University (Nijmegen, the Netherlands). Professor Tak has been generous to make the text of his 2008 book available to a next generation of legal scholars: the twelve authors of the 2019 adaptation.

The 2019 book was specifically written for exchange students taking a course in Dutch criminal law and for researchers who wish to explore the Dutch criminal law system for the purposes of comparative law. In this blog I will first briefly discuss the contents of the book. Next, I will share some of our experiences with writing and editing a book on one’s own legal system for an international audience.

The book

The Criminal Justice System of the Netherlands consists of four parts. Part I on Crime, Law and Politics covers general topics such as the structure of the state, the organization of the criminal justice system and current criminal policy.

Part II is devoted to Substantive Criminal Law. Topics discussed in this part include the history and structure of the relevant criminal codes, the conditions for criminal liability (actus reus, mens rea), complete defenses (such as duress and self-defense), inchoate offences (attempt and preparation of a crime) and participation (on principals and accessories).

Part III presents our Criminal Procedure. This part also provides a historical background and sets out the structure of our procedural legislation. Subsequently, Part III moves chronologically (from pre-trial to trial phase) through a vast array of topics, for example pre-trial detention, victim’s rights and appeals procedures.

Part IV of the book focuses on Sanctions and contains information on sentencing principles, the system of sanctions and – in relation to prison sentences – on conditional release and aftercare.

As you can gather from the outline above, the structure of The Criminal Justice System of the Netherlands is very similar to other handbooks on criminal law. However, what sets this book apart from handbooks written for a domestic audience are the multiple author approach and the system of references, which I will both discuss below. 

Multiple authors

The advantage of working with multiple authors on a handbook about one’s own legal system is that each chapter can be written by a scholar specializing in that particular field. Consequently, the author is not only able to provide – on an introductory level – a complete and up-to-date overview of a specific area, he or she is also familiar with the international context of this area. The author has knowledge of other legal systems and knows what is different, or even peculiar, about the Dutch legal system. Therefore, we asked the authors not to just write an overview of their field, but also to highlight the typically Dutch aspects within this field. As a result, the book contains sections on, for example, the (many) powers of the Dutch public prosecutor, our (infamous) drug policy, Dutch anti-terrorism legislation and our – ever-developing[i] – position on euthanasia.

Although working with multiple authors has the great advantage of specialist knowledge, some hurdles had to be taken before the manuscript was ready for publishing. The main challenge of writing a handbook with twelve authors was managing the differences between the various contributions. For contributions not only varied in vocabulary (legal translations!) but also in style, English, angles, emphasis and so on.

The problem of legal translations was tackled by providing all authors with the same English translations of the Dutch criminal codes and by asking them to use the legal terminology employed in these texts. In addition, authors were asked to put the Dutch translation of key legal concepts in brackets, so that the editors could check whether legal translations were used consistently throughout the manuscript (another reason why we asked for Dutch translations in brackets was to support readers in making direct legal translations from Dutch to their own system).

In order to create more unity in style and English, we provided author guidelines, asked authors to set their spell check to American English and requested a native speaker to correct the final draft. Considering other aspects of style, English, angles and emphasis, we accepted the differences between chapters and choose to underline that contributions were written by different authors by showing this in the table of contents.

References

‘A starting point for an international audience of legal scholars, who desire to explore the Dutch legal system’. That is how we phrased the purpose of our book. Being a starting point, we decided the references in the book need not to be exhaustive, as they are in traditional handbooks, but instead should be of practical use to an international audience. Consequently, we prioritized references to sources in the English language. Accordingly, the book refers to articles on Dutch law that were written in English, Dutch PhD theses with an English summary and English publications of Dutch Supreme Court case law. Because not all the relevant case law is published in English, the book also refers to cases that are only available in Dutch. In order to also make these references useful to an international audience, the introduction to the book contains explanatory notes on Dutch search engines, so that the reader can easily find these Dutch cases (and put them through Google translate). Finally, the book also refers to the best and most complete Dutch handbooks on criminal law. Accordingly, the international reader can get acquainted with the Dutch ‘classics’.

Final thoughts

As an educator and scientist, I have always experienced that empathy with one’s audience is an essential aspect of writing. What is the level of information of the reader? What would be interesting for the reader to learn? And which aspects of your message need thorough explanation? These are crucial questions when preparing a paper. However, when – instead of writing for scientists in your own field – writing on one’s own legal system for a foreign audience, the relevance of this empathy is magnified. First of all because the background this audience is very different from your own. Second, because the audience is very diverse. For these reasons we really had to reflect on our own system. What are the common denominators with other systems and which typical Dutch aspects need to be highlighted and explained? In order to enhance this level of reflection, working with multiple authors has been an enriching experience. Finally, because of the nature of our audience, empathy when writing The Criminal Justice System of the Netherlands was also about constructing a book with useful references, so that our readers would not get lost in a jungle of unintelligible Dutch prose.

Maartje Krabbe, Assistant Professor of Jurisprudence at Radboud University (Nijmegen, the Netherlands) – www.linkedin.com/in/maartjekrabbe

[i] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-52367644

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