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Interview with alumna Jolien Schukking: Working as a judge at the European Court of Human Rights

Alumna Jolien Schukking has been working as a judge at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg since 2017. In this special role, she provides legal protection at an international level in major cases and concerning various topics. What is her job like and what motivates her?

Schukking is a prime example of ‘she who dares wins’. After leaving secondary school, she went to the United States to study for a year, while also doing an internship at the United Nations in New York. 'I come from Zeist and had quite a sheltered upbringing. I wanted to go out into the wide world.' At a time when there was no e-mail or internet, there seemed to be limited options. Schukking decided to send letters to certain embassies. 'Using my school English, I asked: “What can I do in your country?” And then the US embassy responded with information about scholarships ... That's how I ended up in the United States.”

Recurrent theme: international relations and law

Becoming a judge at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) was not an objective as such, but ‘perhaps a dream’. After graduating, she worked as a legal expert at the Dutch Council of State and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then as a lawyer and finally as a judge. During her time with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she represented the Government of the Kingdom before the ECtHR in Strasbourg and was involved in projects in Central and Eastern European countries aimed at strengthening their judicial systems.

Though not an objective, a focus on human rights aspects is visible throughout her professional life. ‘I have always believed that the law can contribute to a more just and better organised society. That was also something that motivated me to stand for election as a judge at the ECtHR.’

What does the ECtHR do?

The ECtHR monitors the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms contained in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Any person who believes they are the victim of a violation of such a right can file a complaint at the ECtHR against the country in question.
‘First, you have to have put the case to the highest court in your own country.’ The complaint can be about anything - for example, an alleged unfair trial, arbitrary detention, wiretapping of telephone calls, or discrimination. But it can also be about issues concerning family law, such as being placed in care or domestic violence, freedom of the press, and ownership rights.  ‘The complaint could be that you believe your right has been disproportionally infringed or because you feel the government has failed in some way. In the latter case, this could be an infringement of a positive obligation: the government, after all, must design the system so that the rights of all are safeguarded. 
The ECtHR also deals with inter-State complaints. These are complaints that are submitted by one Contracting State against another, such as the complaint submitted by the Netherlands against Russia concerning the shooting down of flight MH17.'

The ECtHR has 46 judges – one for each Contracting State. These judges are not judges on behalf of their own State; they are independent. ‘But if a complaint has been submitted against the Netherlands, it is my task – as the "national judge" – to clarify the Dutch law and context for my colleagues so they can have a better understanding of the case.’

Jolien Schukking

60,000 cases a year

Some 60,000 cases reach the ECtHR each year. These are distributed as well as possible via various mechanisms. Some cases are dealt with by one judge, others by three or seven judges. So not every case gets the same amount of attention, ‘but every case gets the attention it deserves. We consider the requirements of each case separately. The complaint of the Netherlands against Russia concerning flight MH17 came before the largest chamber of 17 judges.’

‘Many cases are dismissed, for example, because no mistake was made by the national court.’ There are also so-called repetitive cases: cases concerning the same issue, such as prison conditions in Romania. ‘If the Court has already ruled that in a certain prison the cells are overcrowded, then there is no need to establish this again in a detailed ruling and the case is settled quickly.’

Unfortunately, the ECtHR still does not manage to deal with all cases in time. ‘Some 60,000 cases reach the Court each year. This should and could be much lower if national authorities of contracting countries better protected human rights themselves. The ECtHR would then effectively be the last resort. The Court, therefore, organises regular visits, presentations, lectures, and receptions. In this way, we try to provide tools to help national authorities fulfil their duty.’

Judge at the ECtHR

The ECtHR: ‘A House of Stories’

With so many cases being dealt with every day, it is important to remain aware that behind every case is a human being. ‘A court is often referred to as a Palace of Justice. But actually, it is more "a House of Stories", stories of people. These stories started long before they came to you the judge and will continue on afterwards. As a judge, it is important that you always realise that those few sentences that you add to that story matter – that they can be decisive for what happens next in that story.’

Future ambitions: Post-mandate policy and better facilities

Schukking is not yet considering her future after the ECtHR. She is in her sixth year as a judge at the Court – an appointment lasts for nine years. She does still have enough ambitions to fulfil within the ECtHR itself. ‘Better facilities for family members of future judges who move with them for example. My family couldn’t move to Strasbourg because there were no places available for the children in schools. These kinds of problems might deter good candidates from standing for election at the ECtHR.’ Some colleagues also find it difficult to find a position in their own country after their appointment as a judge with the ECtHR. ‘They might have given rulings that didn’t go down well with their government. As a result, it’s sometimes hard for them to return to their country in a suitable position.’ The ECtHR is therefore drawing attention to the development of a post-mandate policy. ‘Laying down a guarantee in national legislation that judges can return to their old job would be something to consider.’

Strive for a balance between the law and your conscience

‘Apart from general advice such as “enjoy your time as a student” and “keep chasing your dreams”, I would like to pass on a lesson I learned from my mentor in Leiden, Professor Schermers. He told his law students: 'Know the rules and when explaining and applying them, never lose sight of the human aspect. Strive for a balance between the law and your conscience. Between head and heart. That lesson applies in all areas of the law.’

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