If you’re in a foreign country, you are more at risk of being the victim of a scam, because you might not know the rules, the laws and / or your rights. For example, you rented an apartment at premium price and after check-out, your (former) landlord “discovers” all kinds of defects and refuses to return your deposit. What happens when you can’t afford legal help? How does pro bono assistance work in the Netherlands?
When do you qualify for pro bono assistance in the Netherlands?
In the Netherlands, pro bono, like everything else, is regulated by law. It is universal, which means that it applies to anyone anywhere in the world as long as you have an issue for which a legal remedy exists in this country.
You qualify for subsidised legal assistance if your income was (very) modest two years ago and if you did not have taxable assets. If you qualify for subsidised legal assistance, you only pay a contribution (between 152 and 848 euros, depending on your income). If your gross annual income in the qualification year was over 28.600 euros (singles) or 40.400 euros (family), you don’t qualify.
No income in Holland two years ago?
But what if you didn’t have any income in this country two years ago, because you didn’t live here (yet)? As said, the pro bono law applies universally, so it really doesn’t matter where you had the income.
However, the idea behind the “qualification year” is that the tax collection office knows your taxable income and assets and that it can report such income and assets to the Legal Aid Board. This, naturally, applies to income and assets registered in this country only.
If you had income and assets outside of the Netherlands two years ago, you may apply anyway by completing a form. In this case, the qualification year shifts to the current year. The Legal Aid Board now needs to know from you what income and assets you have had in the running year, and it needs some form of evidence (like pay slips or taxation documents from abroad).
Sudden change in income
What if your income suddenly drops? You may not qualify because you had a nice job until recently, but you lost your income (which may be the reason you need subsidised legal assistance). In this case, you may qualify for a review on the basis of the current fiscal year.
The rule is this: if your income in the current fiscal year drops by 15% or more in comparison to your income two years ago, you may be allowed such a review. You will need to fill in a form and to submit evidence. The same applies to your assets: you might have had taxable assets two years ago, but you no longer have them.
Do all solicitors (attorneys / advocaten) offer pro bono assistance?
No. Participation is voluntary. Especially because of underfunding, more and more solicitors have chosen to leave the pro bono system. So much so, that parliament has taken the initiative to force the government to take remedial action. Some small steps have been taken or are in the pipeline. Whether it is enough remains to be seen.
In the meantime, you should carefully discuss pro bono before you hire a lawyer. Solicitors in this country are bound by a code of conduct, which forces them to discuss the possibility for you to make use of pro bono help, even if they themselves do not participate. The easiest is to find a solicitor who does participate (see below).
If I win my case, doesn’t my adversary need to pay?
The brief answer: no. In many countries, the gaining party gets a judgment in which their adversary is ordered to compensate for legal fees (or the costs of the proceedings), but they rarely cover the actual costs of legal assistance.
The reason behind this gap between the actual costs and the awarded costs is at the basis of the rule of law: fair play. The system of costs awards is based on the interests involved and take into account that anyone who participates in society must accept that they might be involved in legal proceedings once in a while and accept that such proceedings may cost money.
The gap between paying a solicitor all by yourself and pro bono can be huge. That’s why some solicitors offer special rates for people who don’t qualify for subsidised legal aid but who can’t afford to pay the hourly rates usually asked by solicitors. Also, you may find special rates for particular problems, e.g. “rent deposit collection” or a labour or rental contract scan.
How to find a good solicitor in the Netherlands
Whether you qualify for subsidised legal assistance or not, you need to find a good solicitor. Your best source is the Dutch bar association’s website, where you can filter by specialisation and distance. The third step in the web application is important: tick “affiliated with a specialisation association” and, if you qualify for subsidised legal aid, also tick that box.