Leiden Law Blog

Disaster Relief Funds

Posted on by Janet van de Bunt in Private Law
Disaster Relief Funds Fireworks disaster Enschede, Photo: Bart Flikweert

On Thursday 30 June 2016 I will defend my PhD thesis entitled Het rampenfonds [Disaster Relief Funds], 16.15 hrs at the Academy Building.

Disasters and incidents

Disasters and incidents inevitably occur from time to time, on both a major and a minor scale. Take the fireworks disaster in Enschede, the flight that was downed over the Ukraine, or the monster truck crashing into the crowd in Haaksbergen. In principle, victims of these kinds of disasters may claim compensation for damage from the party at fault through the system of liability law. In the case of disasters, however, liability law has proven insufficient for the task. As a result, the victim is unable to recoup his or her loss at all, or potentially only after great delay, or only in part. For this reason, the government has regularly seen fit to establish a disaster relief fund.

Research question 

My research centred on the question of which role these government-funded disaster relief funds should have in the Netherlands in the settlement of damage as a result of disasters, with regard to liability law. To that end, the following four disasters were examined, each of which resulted in the establishment of a disaster relief fund:

- the legionellosis outbreak in Bovenkarspel;
- the fireworks disaster in Enschede;
- the dike breach in Wilnis;
- victims of asbestos exposure.

I looked at these disasters from the perspective of liability law; have the problems of liability law, such as insolvency and the long duration of legal proceedings, been addressed? I also examined disaster relief funds by means of the functions of liability law, for instance recognition, prevention and procedural justice. Furthermore I raised the question: does the Dutch government possibly have a duty to establish a disaster relief fund on the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights?

Problems solved?

The problem of insolvency is solved when the government establishes a disaster relief fund and streamlining the procedure will affect the duration positively. Other problems, such as proving a causal relationship, will remain the same if the fund applies the same strict conditions as liability law. Disaster relief funds cannot have the same functions as liability law, if compensation to the victim is not paid by the culprit. However they can compensate and give recognition to the victim. In the event the government is involved in a disaster monitoring, issuing permits or ensuring regulation the European Convention on Human Rights applies. The right to life (Art. 2 ECHR) that entails a positive procedural right to offer a remedy in practice, is breached in the case of a disaster. The long duration of proceedings after a disaster breaches the right to a fair trial within a reasonable time (Art. 6 ECHR).

Legislative proposal: a disaster relief fund in the Netherlands

To escape liability under the European Convention on Human Rights I propose establishing a disaster relief fund. This could either take the form of an advance fund combined with measures to resolve the insolvency issue of culprits. Alternatively a general disaster relief fund could be set up to cover standardised compensation in full. The organisation of the fund should be entrusted to a team of experts consisting of delegates from the Ministry of the Interior, the Dutch Safety Board, damage experts, scientists and judges.

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