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'Sexism isn’t just defined by men, but also by women'

Bénédicte Ficq, criminal lawyer
Bénédicte Ficq, Photo: Patricia Steur
Bénédicte Ficq, Photo: Patricia Steur

Text: Sara Plat, translation UVC

Bénédicte Ficq is one of the most famous criminal lawyer in the Netherlands. Ficq has represented Dino Soerel, Jan-Dirk Paarlberg, and Badr Hari, among others. She was recently involved in criminal proceedings against the tobacco industry, and is currently preparing a criminal case against Tata Steel. Ficq lives in Amsterdam and has two adult children.

You and your two sisters studied law in Groningen. Was that an obvious choice in your family?
‘Not especially. My father was a mayor, my mother a housewife. But there were quite a few judges and a prosecutor in my family, so we definitely picked up a thing or two about the field. And none of us were particularly ambitious. So, then you end up choosing a relatively easy degree programme that could take you in any direction. As for studying in Groningen; I wanted something new, fresh, and exciting. I didn’t want to be surrounded by the same old faces; I wanted to stand on my own two feet. So I moved to the other side of the country, to Groningen. I went first, and my sisters followed me. All three of us worked together at a café, De Drie Gezusters. To be honest, my days as a student were rather alcohol-fuelled. Not much studying and a lot of partying. There’s no other way to describe it, really. I’m afraid that I don’t have anything very inspiring to say in terms of being motivated to study.’

When did things change, and when did you become fascinated by the profession?
‘When I actually started working at a criminal law firm. The penny dropped: I knew this was where I was supposed to be. Criminal law was like one big adventure. I went to the police station, assisted a squatter, had contact with clients. And then there’s the forensic and psychological aspects. The key to success in criminal law is being able to convince others by developing and applying good interpersonal skills – not only at the client-lawyer level, but at all kinds of levels. That’s what I still find so fascinating about my work. The administrative side of things can be a real bore at times. But I still love the actual work.’

How do you manage to convince all these different people to trust you?
‘By being very honest. Sometimes people know me by word of mouth, if I’ve assisted their brother or cousin. That makes it much easier to establish a good working relationship. But I think people also feel comfortable with me because they sense that I don’t judge them, which is true. You often can’t judge why people have done the things they are accused of doing. They can sense that I don’t write them off as human beings, and that I am genuinely trying to build a good working relationship with them. In this job, you learn to look at people in a very nuanced way. Anyone can come face to face with the criminal justice system in difficult times.’

In recent years, besides serious crime, you have also been involved in other types of cases: the case against the tobacco industry, and now the case against Tata Steel. Does this mark a shift in your career?
Although pure criminal law is a passion of mine, the climate, environment, and nature are perhaps an even greater love. I gladly contribute my knowledge for those causes. That’s important to me, and it makes me happy.’

They are certainly not easy cases. In previous interviews, you compared it to David versus Goliath...
‘It’s very difficult. Those big industries have a lot of money; they can hire so many people, so many lawyers. And if those big companies stick to the rules, it makes things quite difficult. Take the tobacco industry, for example. All government authorities have really dropped the ball there and have been completely hoodwinked by the lobby, which has resulted in tremendously generous regulations. That’s why criminal proceedings have ultimately failed. I really do hope that the Public Prosecution Service does prosecute Tata Steel. And I hope that verdict and those findings will lead to a domino effect; that things will really start to change in terms of the environment.’

What is it about the case against Tata Steel that struck you? Why did you agree to take it on?
‘Look, in the 1980s the motto was: “The polluter pays”. But we really need to move away from that. You should never be able to buy your way out of causing pollution. You shouldn’t be allowed to pollute at all, it’s as simple as that! Especially if it damages the health of people and animals. For some reason, people don’t seem to realize how outrageous it is that air and water, which belong to all of us, are being claimed and poisoned by people with money and power. If you were to actually have this discussion, it would quickly become grotesque, absurd even. It would be almost impossible to argue that the polluter has a right of priority to poison our air. If you have a government that doesn’t protect you, that thinks that the polluter has a greater right to the composition of the air than its citizens, then I would be interested to see who ends up winning that battle.’

Where did you get this combative spirit fro m?
‘I grew up in a hamlet in the province of Zuid-Limburg and had to cycle to school. And that wasn’t exactly just down the road. At first, I cycled 35 kilometres a day and later, 54 kilometres. So, you come into contact with real nature every day. And I have seen that nature change. That’s worrying, and it’s happening so fast. Disasters on our planet are occurring at an exponential rate. I don’t believe it’s five minutes to midnight; it’s already half past twelve. That’s quite a gloomy outlook for young people. I might be dead in twenty years’ time, but I have children, who may also want children. That’s what I worry about.’

Does it take a lot of courage to take on such big cases that involve matters of principle?
‘No, not at all. All that money and power doesn’t intimidate me one bit. I have absolutely no respect for the psychopathy of those people in positions of power who walk around in tailored suits. I’m glad that the defendants in the tobacco case and in the Tata case approached me, I consider it an honour. I have nothing to lose. I’m an independent lawyer, I am not dependent on anyone, I am not for sale. And I’m 63, don’t forget that. But I don’t think it would have been a problem in my thirties, either. It’s just not in my nature to be intimidated by that kind of thing.’

What are you proud of?
‘I’m not particularly proud of my achievements to date, but I am impressed by some individuals. For example, when someone manages to leave the life of crime behind them and proudly comes to visit me to show off their new baby or tell me about their new job. And when they tell me that certain conversations with me prompted them to choose a new path. I also often receive cards from people at Christmas, telling me that their conversations with me helped them to turn over a new leaf. That’s lovely to read.
People I worked with on the tobacco case often say that that case has changed people’s perspectives of the tobacco industry. And, obviously, I hope that I will eventually be able to contribute to the whole discussion about air pollution and the climate.’

Do you consider yourself a role model?
‘Perhaps for young women who want to get into criminal law, and that’s great. It’s always good to inspire women who want to make a difference in a male-dominated world. Always follow the path you want to follow and don’t let people stand in your way just because they think they can and are allowed to. Break through those barriers, push them aside, and believe in yourself.
And if someone makes a sexist comment, I call them out. Because sexism isn’t just defined by men, but also by women; by tolerating men’s sexist behaviour. That’s something that we all have to keep, and continue to keep, a very close eye on.’

Bénédicte Ficq

Bénédicte Ficq (Goirle, 1957) is a criminal lawyer. She graduated from the University of Groningen in 1986. After working at a law firm for a number of years, she and several partners started their own firm in 1992. Ficq has represented clients in a number of cases that have attracted widespread media attention, such as the ‘ballpoint murder’. She has also represented Dino Soerel, Jan-Dirk Paarlberg, and Badr Hari, among others. She was recently involved in criminal proceedings against the tobacco industry, and is currently preparing a criminal case against Tata Steel. Ficq lives in Amsterdam and has two adult children.

Last modified:28 January 2022 11.23 a.m.
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