Het Ucall congres is officieel van start!

The Ucall conference has started! At 9.30 this morning, Ivo Giesen, program-leader of Ucall, has officially opened the first Ucall conference. Today and tomorrow, legal scholars from all over the world will engage in a discussion of both theoretical and practical implications of the Risk Society today (in reference to “The risk society” as developed by the late Ulrich Beck).

The opening speech:

Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear attendants to the first Ucall conference,

On behave of the organizing committee, and Professor Francois Kristen, joint program director of the Utrecht Centre for Accountability and Liability Law, UCALL, I would like to wholeheartedly welcome you all to Utrecht and to the Ucall conference on Law in the Risk Society. My name is Ivo Giesen and I am professor of private law here at Utrecht University, and also joint program director of the Utrecht Centre for Accountability and Liability Law.

The Utrecht Centre for Accountability and Liability Law (UCALL) is a group of academic researchers within Utrecht University’s School of Law that was established some two years ago, in early 2013, as part of the reorganizing scheme that the Utrecht School of Law underwent. Our research group is formed by members of several departments within the Faculty, ranging from private law to public international law and from legal theory to criminal law via administrative law. Together, they have set out to conduct multidisciplinary research on the boundaries of accountability and liability in the Netherlands, in Europe, and beyond.

Let me expand somewhat on that ambition by sketching our field of research. A key question we ask ourselves is what is it that society wants to achieve by invoking liability rules and allocating accountability (both in the Netherlands as well as in Europe). When something has gone wrong, with detrimental effects, there seems to be a recurring demand for the use of legal instruments to be able to hold a natural person, company, corporation, government or other institution accountable for that event. In the process of establishing the liability of such persons or entities the boundaries of liability law are often explored or even tested; who can be held liable for the damage? The liability can be based on private law (such as through the law of tort or contractual fault), criminal law, administrative law or constitutional law. This may result in an obligation to pay damages to the victim, the imposition of criminal sanctions, or the attribution of administrative sanctions and measures, possibly also in combination with each other.

Immediately, of course, one is inclined to ask: should all of this in fact be possible? Are there no limits to the possibility of invoking someone’s liability? Isn’t there a need for a control mechanism of any kind? Or in the reversed scenario, is the attribution of accountability, whether or not via liability law, in certain cases still too limited in order to offer proper redress, thereby making it necessary to expand the accountability of individuals, governments and/or companies? Does the nature of the violation in question (human rights, violations of a national, European or international standard) play a part? Are separate rules required for different juridical instruments for the attribution of accountability and their potential and effects? Who determines on a normative and factual level the (limits to) accountability and who should be attributed the responsibility to do so from the perspective of the rule of law? What is the relationship (or: boundary) between accountability and liability? Of course I could go on for a while but these are the sorts of questions we like to ask ourselves, and each other.

Our focus in thinking about these and other fundamental questions lies especially with the possibilities and arguments to reset, if so desired, the previously mostly normatively determined limits on liability by changing, expanding or diminishing that liability, both at a systematic level as well as in specific cases. Given the inherent dynamic nature of the law, as it is constantly evolving and subject to change, through social and legal developments (individualization, secularization, Europeanization, globalization, and so on), and given the somehow natural urge of liability law to only expand and never decrease, it is the ambition of the UCALL researchers at Utrecht School of Law to research and analyze whether there are in fact also limits to liability and accountability, and if so, what those limits should be and where the opportunities for further development lie.

The theme of this first ever Ucall international conference that starts here, today, fits very well within this research field and our focus. The theme we have chosen, “Law in the risk society”, pays tribute to the influential sociological work “The risk society” as developed by the late Ulrich Beck. The connection with our own, where possible multidimensional, but mostly legal research is of course that the side effects that the risk society has brought and still brings to the forefront in modern societies, such as the devastating effects of, for instance, climate change, the tightening of security measures, or the deepening of inequalities, have an impact on the way we think about – and should deal with – questions of accountability and legal liability and the limits of these concepts. Questions we encountered and that were formulated by the members of the organizing committee are, for example: ‘What does responsibility (in the broadest sense of the word) mean for law in the world risk society, when we consider that one function of law lies in the distribution of responsibility?  What does liability as a means to distribute loss mean in the world risk society? Are the criteria we use applicable in respect of risks and their catastrophic consequences?’

Of course, Professor Beck himself has also linked accountability issues to his concept of the risk society. To illustrate this, let me quote a passage from his 2006 Hobhouse Memorial Lecture entitled “Living in the World risk society”. He says there:

“Risks presuppose human decisions. They are the partly positive, partly negative, Janus-faced consequences of human decisions and interventions. In relation to risks there is inevitably posed the highly explosive question of social accountability and responsibility, and this is also true where the prevailing rules allow for accountability only in extremely exceptional cases.”

Now, we had of course secretly hoped that Professor Beck himself would bestow upon us the honor of visiting our conference to further elaborate on and discuss his ideas on the linkage of the risk society with the law and legal questions in the domain of accountability and liability, but his much regretted early passing meant we had to leave that hope behind some months ago.

Luckily, in our key note speaker, Scott Veitch, which will be more formally introduced a bit later on, we had already found a brilliant academic and speaker who seems to be inspired by, and who uses and also elaborates on the work of Beck. For more reasons that I can list here, I myself am really looking forward to his speech, to the reply to him that will be provided by Ucall’s own Ferry de Jong, professor of criminal law and criminal procedure, and to the debate between them and all of us in this room that hopefully will ensue.

But before we get to those parts of this morning session, I will first give the floor to the chair of the organizing committee, Bald de Vries, who will shortly introduce Ulrich Beck and his work. While doing so, I would like to take the opportunity to thank him, as well as the other members of the organizing committee, for all their hard work in organizing this very promising conference.

On behalf of Ucall, and particularly, the organizing committee, I wish you all an inspiring and enlightening conference! Thank you

Ivo Giesen                                                                                        Utrecht, April 9, 2015