prof. mr. dr. M. (Michel) Vols
'Neighbours from hell': from eviction to solving problems (2016-2020)
Dutch statistics indicate that over half a million tenants suffer from serious anti-social behaviour from their neighbours (e.g. noise nuisance, intimidation). The most common procedure landlords use to address this anti-social behaviour is orientated towards eviction. They request a court to force the anti-social tenants to leave their home when the situation becomes unbearable for the neighbourhood. This approach is not effective, because it displaces problems and causes homelessness. Moreover, it exasperates the victims, as processing times of five years are normal.
The objective of this research project is to provide an alternative approach that enables landlords and courts to address anti-social behaviour promptly, effectively and in a proportionate manner. In order to gain a deeper understanding of the current approach, the past and existing litigations concerning anti-social behaviour will be analysed statistically with the aid of a unique and manually collected database covering 562 judgements. To date there have been no quantitative studies dealing with the approach to housing-related anti-social behaviour. Because this method is rarely used in legal research, the project will develop empirical legal scholarship and provides an opportunity to advance the understanding of the use of statistical analysis in the area of law.
To develop an alternative approach, I will conduct an analysis of the body of academic scholarship on solution-orientated justice. Solution-orientated justice embodies the notion that adjudicating cases is not the same thing as resolving them. The justice system has to provide more than fair court proceedings. It should prioritise efforts to change the behaviour of offenders; provide better support to neighbours; and improve safety in neighbourhoods.
Practitioners will be involved in the whole research process from proposal to implementation. The project has been discussed in sveral multidisciplinary expert meeting. Furthermore, it has been discussed with over 250 practitioners in several meetings over the last years.
This project is funded by NWO.
Project results (selection):
- Vols, M. & Jacobs, J.P.A.M (2017), Juristen als rekenmeesters: over de kwantitatieve analyse van jurisprudentie, in P.A.J. van den Berg & G. Molier, In dienst van het recht, Den Haag: Boom Juridische uitgevers.
- Sidoli del Ceno, J., Vols, M. (2017) Contemporary Housing Law, in J. Sidoli del Ceno, M. Vols & M. Kiehl (Eds.), Regulating the City: Contemporary Urban Housing Law, Den Haag: Eleven Publishing, pp. 1-10.
- Vols, M. (2017), Banning criminals and nuisance neighbours from housing: human rights proof? Exclusion and the Dutch Urban Areas Special Measures Bill, in J. Sidoli del Ceno, M. Vols & M. Kiehl (Eds.), Regulating the City: Contemporary Urban Housing Law, Den Haag: Eleven Publishing, pp. 127-143.
- Vols, M. (2016), Slecht huurderschap, gedragsaanwijzingen en het huurrecht, Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Burgerlijk Recht, Vol 32, nr. 7, pp. 214-223.
- Vols, M. & Minkjan, N. (2016) Huurachterstand, huisuitzetting en rechterlijke besluitvorming, Recht der Werkelijkheid, Vol 37, nr. 2, pp. 9-30.
- Vols, M., Kiehl, M. & Sidoli del Ceno, J. (2016) Burenrecht en onrechtmatige hinder in de stad van de 21e eeuw, Weekblad voor Privaatrecht, Notariaat en Registratie, nr. 7098, pp. 206-2012.
- Vols, M., Tassenaar, P.G. & Jacobs, J.P.A.M. (2015), Dutch Courts and Housing Related Anti-social Behaviour. A first statistical analysis of legal protection against eviction, International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, nr. 2., pp. 148-161.
Automatic detection of linguistic patterns in legal big data (2017-2021)
Law is everywhere: almost every human activity is regulated. Buying a sandwich, renting an apartment or going to a hospital, all these activities involve legal rules and consequences. For a stable and sustainable society it is essential that its laws are predictable. People need to know what a legal rule means and what likely outcome a potential court case will have. Authorities have tried to improve the law's predictability and transparency by publishing court judgments. For decades, summaries of judgments were published in written journals, which were not easily accessible for the public. Nowadays, courts publish their judgments online. For example, approximately 370,000 individual court judgments can be found on the website of the Dutch judiciary (www.rechtspraak.nl). Similarly, another 52,000 court judgments are published online by the European Court of Human Rights (http://hudoc.echr.coe.int). Each of these judgments contains a detailed and rich description of the facts, procedure, reasoning of the parties and outcome of the case. Of course, public availability of case law will help to improve predictability and transparency, but to analyse hundreds of thousands of legal documents, we need other approaches than the traditional and labour-intensive 'doctrinal analysis' (i.e. close reading of a single or a small number of judgments) conducted by legal researchers.
The goal of this PhD project is therefore to combine two distinctly separate disciplines, law and computational linguistics, in developing and evaluating quantitative, computational approaches to improve the predictability and transparency of the law. Techniques from computational linguistics would (for example) enable the automatic extraction, syntactic and semantic analysis of the judgment texts. The extracted features may be used in quantitative analyses identifying common patterns (see Wieling, 2012 for examples, albeit in a different field), which can subsequently be used to predict the outcome of a judgment. Such an approach would clearly be beneficial for the field of law. Surprisingly, a recent study (Vols & Jacobs, 2016) showed that between 2006 and 2016 fewer than 25 publications in Dutch legal journals were published involving statistics to analyse case law. While a quantitative approach to analysing case law is more prevalent in the US, it is primarily focused on specific American legal issues, and frequently contains serious methodological flaws (Epstein & King, 2002; Epstein & Martin, 2014).
In computational linguistics, specific characteristics of legal texts have been studied (see Francesconi, Montemagni et al. (eds.), 2010), but hardly any studies have attempted to use linguistic characteristics to predict judicial decisions. A very recent exception (also illustrating the timeliness of the project idea) by Aletras et al. (2016) reported an accuracy of 79% in predicting the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. However, they focused only on a small sample (600 judgments) and used simplistic linguistic features (such as word frequency). The goal of this PhD project is therefore to take a more comprehensive, linguistically-oriented approach incorporating all available data, thereby developing a system which is able to detect common patterns in legal big data and use these to predict the outcome of a judgment.
This project is funded by the Young Academy Groningen.
The fight against rough landlords and substandard housing in the Netherlands (2012-2017) and abroad (2017-2019)
In this project we analyze how local authorities in the Netherlands and other countries deal with problems caused by rogue landlords ('huisjesmelkers'). We conduct empirical and comparative legal research.
Project results (selection):.
Vols, M., Hof, J.P. Hof & J.G. Brouwer (2017), De aanpak van malafide pandeigenaren & de handhaving van de Woningwet, Den Haag: Boom Juridische uitgevers.
Vols, M. & Hof, J.P. (2016) Malafide pandeigenaren en de Woningwet, Tijdschrift voor Bouwrecht, nr. 2, pp. 108-120.
Vols, M. (2012), De Woningwet en de nieuwe sloppen. Bestrijding woonoverlast anno 2012, Tijdschrift voor Bouwrecht, 138.
Housing-related anti-social behaviour and the right to respect for the home and private life (2008-2013)
In the Netherlands, mayors do not have the power to deal with home owners who cause serious nuisance through excessive noise or other forms of antisocial behaviour towards their neighbours. The local authorities can try to close the houses, but the courts tend to see this as too radical. Legal scholar Michel Vols is suggesting an amendment to the Dutch Municipalities Act that will empower local authorities to respond more effectively to serious conflicts between neighbours. Vols will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 31 October.
Just last year, the Mayor of Purmerend closed an owner-occupied property because of the serious nuisance that the owner was causing to his neighbours. The decision was contested and the Haarlem District Court found in the owner’s favour. Although the nuisance seriously disturbed the neighbours’ enjoyment of their property and the court understood the reason for the Mayor’s decision, the judge did not think that noise nuisance ultimately justified home closure. The neighbours of the person causing the problem felt that the ruling left them paying the price.
The only instrument available to mayors is the proverbial sledgehammer, which, in cases like these, may not be used to crack the nut. The authorities are left powerless to help victims of nuisance neighbours. This imbalance could easily be rectified in line with the English example, claims Michel Vols on the basis of his research into dealing with antisocial behaviour. Tony Blair’s Labour government gave local authorities the power to issue civil preventative orders to problem home owners at an early stage. ‘In the Netherlands, this could entail financial sanctions, such as a fine, in combination with a compulsory behaviour order. Owners could be given an ultimatum: get rid of the barking dog or leave your home.’ An amendment to Article 174a of the Municipalities Act (also known as the ‘Wet Victoria’) could bring an end to the invulnerability that home owners currently enjoy in practice.
At present, if the person causing the nuisance rents the property, the likelihood of finding an effective solution is greater than if the property is owner-occupied. ‘It may be a lengthy procedure, but in the worst cases, tenants can be evicted’, says Vols. This imbalance between tenants and owner-occupiers means that it is not the degree or type of antisocial behaviour that determines whether serious nuisance can be resolved, but whether the person causing the nuisance is a tenant or home owner. Vols stresses that more evenly balanced legislation should apply equally to tenants. The behaviour order mentioned above may make it unnecessary for landlords to apply to the courts for tenants to be forcibly evicted from their homes. According to Vols, an amendment to Article 174a of the Municipalities Act would enable local authorities to safeguard the balance between honouring the culprit’s right to a private life and the obligation to protect victims from serious nuisance. Victims would see quicker benefit from a behaviour order, and there would be less need to make people who cause nuisance homeless.
Project results (selection):
Vols, M. (2013), Woonoverlast en het recht op privéleven. De aanpak van overlastveroorzakers in Nederland, Engeland, Wales en België, Den Haag: Boom Juridische uitgevers, 292 pp.
Vols, M. (2014), Neighbors from hell: problem-solving and housing laws in the Netherlands, The Arizona Summit Law Review, 7.
Vols, M. (2015) Over nabuurhaat en nabuurhaat (preadvies Jonge Nederlandse Juristenvereniging), Nederlands Juristenblad 4 december 2015.
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