Extreme antisocial behaviour, long-term bullying, threats: until recently, if the perpetrator is an owner-occupier there was little the mayor could do to put a stop to this. But everything is set to change from next week thanks to a new Act, to which Professor Michel Vols has made an important contribution.
The peace in the beautiful room in the former patrician residence that is now Vols’s office in the Faculty – marble floor, low beamed ceiling, imposing wooden cabinet that fills the wall – is a world away from the subject of his research: antisocial behaviour exhibited by home owners. The only sound that can be heard issues from an open window in the lecture hall on the other side of the courtyard that Vols looks out on to where a student is practising pleading a case. Vols’s research and 2013 PhD thesis paved the way for a new Act that gives mayors the powers to take swifter action against home owners who exhibit antisocial behaviour. A good result for this young, enthusiastic professor.
‘Up to now, the authorities could only mediate and do a lot of talking or evict home owners from their homes if they exhibited antisocial behaviour. But that is a very powerful tool that you don’t use lightly. You want to be able take other action and to act sooner,’ says Vols. ‘My PhD research showed that this works well in other countries. In my thesis I argued for a new tool: a behaviour order, a measure that the mayor enforces and that the person exhibiting the antisocial behaviour must comply with. Examples include a ban on receiving antisocial visitors, or an order to draw up a plan with a social worker about cleaning up a filthy house.’ The idea was picked up by State Secretary Klaas Dijkhoff – who was still an MP at the time – and the Domestic Nuisance Act enters into force on 1 July. Vols is justly proud, particularly of the broad support for the Act. ‘The good thing is that left and right, mayors, municipalities, housing corporations: everyone is behind the plan,’ Vols enthuses. ‘It’s a good compromise.’
Will this not introduce a whole bureaucracy of reports, measures, control and enforcement? ‘Yes, it’ll be a real circus,’ Vols confirms. ‘But that’s what we’ve got already, only nothing ends up happening.’ Some dangers do lie ahead, Vols explains. ‘There’s a risk that the mayor will interfere in non-incidents, or the authorities will increasingly be peering through our letterboxes. Second, more is being asked of the authorities and people will expect more, with the risk of increased disappointment in the authorities if the mayor fails to do what people expect. And third, that municipalities don’t implement the same policy, so how your case is dealt with depends on where you live. This could lead to a postcode lottery that is apparently arbitrary. Luckily you can build in checks and balances for all these dangers.’
Who stands to benefit most? Perpetrator, victim, authorities? Vols jumps up, ‘Good question, and it touches on my role as an academic. Victims definitely stand to benefit. But perpetrators do too, because they won’t be evicted, for instance, if the situation escalates. But I don’t want to take sides. I aim to strike a balance. This is not a law-and-order Act, but neither is it soft. That’s why it enjoys so much political support, from VVD to SP. Balance is what our discipline is all about. It’s what jurists are seeking.’
‘What interests me is how we as a society deal with people who don’t conform’, says Vols. ‘Antisocial behaviour, motorcycle clubs, sex workers: they can be a nuisance, but they are people with the same rights as you and me. This conflict between the fundamental rights of different groups and how the authorities deal with it is fascinating. Being tolerant of the intolerant. If you are able to give shape to that principle you are working on a socially sustainable and inclusive society, with space for everyone, even those who deviate from the norm. As an academic I don’t take sides. You can’t choose a side, anti-authorities or anti-perpetrator for instance. And in practice it’s often not as clear-cut as that. I want to take all interests into consideration. That’s why I’d never want to be a lawyer.’
You could say that Vols has achieved his goal with this Act. So what now? Is there life after the Act for Vols? ‘It’s fantastic to see your work become law. But this is only the beginning. Many municipalities are asking what concrete steps they need to take, so I am working hard on a website. I’ve made an animated video and will hold information meetings for municipal staff. I really like this aspect of my work: showing that it goes further than just the Act, and helping people do what they can. I also can’t wait to find out how the Act will function in practice, whether amendments will be needed, for instance. How do you implement it? What are the consequences? What can be improved? You have to stay critical. As an academic, I’m on the edge of my seat waiting to see if it works. And my team is conducting research into plenty of other issues. There are many types of public order issues and they receive a lot of attention. Through my website and blog, I come into contact with people who ask questions and send me examples of antisocial behaviour. They are my social antennae. I think that’s important. You have to know what’s going on out there!’
Van de Faculteit Rechtsgeleerdheid zijn zes medewerkers genomineerd voor de Magna Charta Publieksprijs 2019.
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