Rechter die rechter hamer vasthoudt
Rechter die rechter hamer vasthoudt

Prevent breach of trust in court for more trust in the government

The Childcare Benefits Scandal, the nitrogen crisis and the Groningen gas extraction dossier: it is clear that trust in the Dutch government has taken a big hit in recent years and that this trust needs to be restored. Misunderstandings and breaches of trust can occur at all administrative and legal levels, leading to diminished trust in government. Within administrative and civil law, more attention should therefore be paid to the consequences of a breach of legitimate expectations, says Nikky van Triet, who will defend her PhD at Radboud University on 22 March.

Trust in the government plays out not only in big issues that dominate the news every day, but also in small, individual cases, as Van Triet discusses in her thesis. “Think, for example, of a citizen who wants more information about being able to build on their plot, with the intention of eventually applying for a permit. The citizen reads on the government website what is needed for this, perhaps they hear from a municipal official that it can all be arranged, which then creates certain expectations. If the permit request is then rejected, there is a violation of expectations.”

To establish the legal consequences of such a breach, it is necessary to assess whether there were legitimate expectations. Only then will a breach of trust have legal consequences. According to Van Triet, currently, courts are too quick to rule that there is no breach of legitimate expectations. “If a citizen can assume, based on their own research into government sources, that something is legally correct, the court should rule in the citizen’s favour. But there is a wide gap between what citizens and judges consider to be legitimate expectations.”

Undermining confidence

These are only individual cases, but any case can undermine confidence in the rule of law, Van Triet warns. Her study therefore makes several recommendations for restoring trust by providing more legal protection in concrete cases. “One of the sore points is that much of the information provided by the government is not considered  binding promise in law. If a municipality’s site says something that turns out to be not quite correct, the government is not responsible for the damage that arises from such an error. The government has to start taking their responsibility in this.”

There are also differences (partly unnecessary ones, according to Van Triet) in how civil and administrative courts look at a case. In a case with the same factual background, one court may rule in favour of the citizen, while the other favours the government. “There are legal reasons for this, such as differences between the administrative and civil law background of the protection of legitimate expectations and the judges’ ruling powers. But for the average citizen, this difference is hard to fathom. Striving for legal unity, where similar cases are judged in a similar way, creates a consistency that is easier for citizens to understand and can ultimately lead to greater legal protection in cases of breached expectations.”


Since the world and language of lawyers and officials is often difficult for citizens to understand, the risk of misunderstandings is high. “That is why it is important not to forget the citizens’ perspective. A seemingly abstract topic like this plays an important role in working towards a more trustworthy government when it is precisely in ordinary everyday life that government statements are often relied on. Think of digital help in filing tax returns, or a conversation with a civil servant about applying for an environmental permit. We need to not only provide more clarity beforehand on trusting government statements, but also – should it ever come to administrative or civil proceedings – to bring the approach of the administrative court and the civil court closer together.”

Contact information

For further information, please contact nikky.vantriet [at] (Nikky van Triet) or team Science communication via +31 24 361 6000 or media [at] (media[at]ru[dot]nl)

Organizational unit
Administrative Law, Faculty of Law
Current affairs, Politics, Law