Recht in Balans

Justice and dignity

Inspiring article about justice and dignity in the Happinez Magazine!

“In each issue we have a talk with an inspiring person, someone who actively strives for a better world.
Lawyer Digna de Bruin does just that by trusting her heart in her working life. She genuinely believes in Soft Power.

Digna de Bruin Happinez 6 2014
Photography: Inga Powilleit

I am first and foremost a human being, secondly I am a lawyer

In the Dutch region of the Dutch ‘Achterhoek’ I am called the Tree Lawyer, because I regularly defend the rights of trees versus a municipality that is eager to use the chain saw.
This is still fairly unique in The Netherlands, but fortunately a worldwide movement is going on with a growing awareness of the rights of Mother Earth and future generations.
In countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia the rights of Mother Earth are actually incorporated in the Constitution. There the Earth is no longer regarded as a source to be exhausted, but as a living organism which is the habitat of millions of forms of life.

After my graduation in 1984 my career progressed quickly, working in a prestigious law firm I grew from an intern to full partner in ten years. It was hard work in a world that was dominated by men, hierarchy and power. I did well and knew how to hold my position, but something was simmering under the surface. Was this ‘it’ that I had chosen this profession for? Just like many others I had started my law studies out of idealism.
For me justice and dignity – the meaning of my name were the guiding principles.
However, many lawyers soon lose that feeling of idealism, because they are forced into endless defences that are not aimed towards the prevailing of justice, but finding loopholes in the law or stalling the procedure. Not only is this frustrating for the lawyers, but also for the clients.
Mainly one thinks in terms of winners and losers. In practice however this mainly means losers.

Because I now dare to stand for my values, others also dare to express their vulnerability

Lawyers often fight by the means of unnecessary grief or polarisation. This causes emotional damage, both for the client and for the opposing party.
In order to obtain more balance in my life I decided to follow a yoga training. I soon felt at home in this new world and enjoyed the genuine attention people seemed to have towards each other. This was totally different from my work. I could not talk about it with my colleagues and so I lead a double life. Only my secretary knew about it. She was my co-conspirator and told my colleagues that I was in court when in fact I was on the yoga mat.
By means of yoga, and by experiencing life (more fully), I grew closer to my soul and became more relaxed and less harsh.
I now recognise more quickly the inability of people to do things differently. Often, underneath anger, blunt or aggressive expressions, there is a concealed need, or a matter of fear why people behave like that.

Due to yoga I have become more in touch with my heart. I now dare to follow my impulses and intuition – also in my work as a lawyer – and to stand up for my values, however scary and difficult this sometimes may be. As a result others also dare to show and express their vulnerability. I try to genuinely make contact with the ‘opposing party’ out of dignity and respect and do not act from the kind of hostility that characterises many lawyers.
I keep the people – also on the opposite side – in one piece and try to get in touch with them to find out what it is that really concerns them. I often do so with a sense of humour, which is quite unusual in the legal profession. Once I asked a lawyer who took his time to come to the phone and appeared to be quite moody: ‘Did you hide behind the Xerox machine?’..
He had to laugh and the ice was instantly broken.
By giving space to others, without judging, one can change people.
It sometimes happens that people who initially ‘stand on the other side’, become willing to help me. They start thinking along with me, provide information, so that the case can be solved after all.
Choosing an unorthodox approach can help as well. Once, during an arduous case, I wished the lawyer on the opposing side a lot of strength, because between the lines I had understood that her child was in hospital. At once we appeared to be human beings and considerable headway was made with our case by making a ‘ladies’ proposal; meaning an unsubstantiated proposal; purely based on feeling and valid for one week only. Dynamics changed drastically and we could quickly solve the case. First and foremost I am a human being, secondly I am a lawyer, not the other way around.

I now have my own firm where I practice different kind of advocacy

I know it may sound vague, but I always try to work out of love. Actually it is strange that I feel obliged to apologise for that, but that’s how it often is in this profession.
Instead of being leading and manipulating during talks, I make use of other techniques such as ‘the empty hole in the middle’, as is beautifully described in Taoism.
To me it is important that people step out of their barriers. Only then one can reach the heart of the matter and thus reach a dignified solution for all parties concerned”.

Source: Happinez Magazine
Text: Tijn Touber
Styling: Tilly Hazenberg
Photography: Inga Powilleit
With cooperation of: Bellerose (trousers), Hunkydory (Blouse), Röhnisch (Top), Summum (sweater).

The chasm between right and rules

The courtroom could use a little more charity

Gooi- en Eemlander 18 June 2013

by Hans van Keken

Baarn – Assume the lotus position in the office for the photo? Not an issue for lawyer Digna de Bruin. “Quite the laugh. And that’s right, because yoga is part of my life,” she says.
And that is not the only idiosyncrasy for the lawyer from Baarn who specializes in civil law and some administrative law. Take her strong sense of justice, which she herself says sometimes is the deciding factor for taking a case, or not. She also walked away from the good life as partner with CMS Derks Star en Busman in order to go out on her own, and work from Baarn. And then from a rather small house next to the colorful country estate, ‘t Benthuys.

“In any case, it beats life lived within partition wall offices,” De Bruin laughed. Large firms, as far as she is concerned, are no longer of our times. “They fall apart”. She does not say that in order to set herself apart, but because it fits with her own development. Something that also involves the practice of yoga.

“I have learned that life is not only formal and rational. I am also not a lawyer of the documents alone, but try to get a broader perspective. A great deal often is happening beneath the surface. That is where humor and intuition come into play.

And the courage to open yourself. Not something often encountered in Lawyerland. They prefer to be in control, focused on action and billings.

De Bruin thinks the courtroom could use a little more charity. “That is why I would like to be transformative as a lawyer. People so often come in a suit or armor. Their shields are good for protection, but they could be lowered a little once in a while.”

Digna de Bruin Kloof tussen recht en regels

Her own approach has brought her some unexpected clients. Such as the stubborn Amersfoort property developer Hans Vahstal. A flea in the fur for the municipality of Amersfoort, which she had faced in the courtroom when town and its collaborating project developers had asked for the help of the firm for which she worked. He found her approach so refreshing that he later asked called on De Bruin to represent him. And in the years-long dispute between Soest’s Oude Kerk and neighborhood resident Mrs. Workum, the latter asked De Bruin for help.
“There had already been two mediations but implementation of the agreements was merely ignored. So we took them to court to enforce.”

Soest’s powerful church finished second in this contest, even though it had only losers, the lawyer regrets. “The problem is that the leadership of that church changed membership over the years. That makes a difficult partner for discussions.”

De Bruin said that she hopes that respect always has the upper hand with her: both for her client and for the counterparty. “That is why I find the dense forest of regulations we have accumulated in our country so be such a problem. This is leaving less and less room for the individual. The rules are foremost, but I say that justice is foremost. There is a great chasm between the two, and it is widening with all this regulation. The government is mainly involved. It is strong and often also abuses its powers.”

The lawyer from Baarn says she regularly sees the government litigating needlessly. “And then they often lose cases. And this is just continuing with a number of towns and cities. Because they have a budget to bring legal cases. On the other side of the coin, community centers have had to shut their doors because, there is no money for them.”
As De Bruin sees it, when the government loses a case it should also step up and admit, “we did not handle that very well.”
“There should be some consequences for civil servants who keep losing their cases. Because there are none,” she finds.

As she puts it, she has had no regrets about starting out on her own. “I now work with others, through a network. I do experience collegiality from this and I am much more approachable. No meetings. No plans that have to be written. And I can also take on social projects. Work on matters that are important personally. Such as preventing scores of trees being chopped down around the country.”

Tree-hugger Lawyer on a Mission

They call her the tree-hugger lawyer. Digna de Bruin’s mission is much broader

De Gooi en Eemlander, 18 June 2013
by Willemien Weerman

DOETINCHEM/BAARN – Her colleagues regularly say the same thing: “You are really very green, aren’t you?”. Digna de Bruin’s response is a simple “yes”. But the lawyer and mediator affectionately called the “tree lawyer” in the Achterhoek area, is not green for the sake of being green.
“Sometimes green has to give way. A tree sometimes has to be cut down. There are other choices but the towns are often single-minded: “that tree has to come down”.
She takes as example a tree issue in Doetinchem. Trees have to come down to make way for Saturn.
De Bruin: “The municipality could have weighed all the interests against each other well in advance. They could have brought Saturn, the Tree Foundation/Bomenstichting and people from the neighborhood to the table. They could also have involved the shopkeepers and retailers. Because it is possible that some other companies are going to fail after Saturn is up and running which will leave empty buildings and loss of overall employment. Saturn could have modified its building plans and become an example for other companies.”
A trip to the courts could have been avoided, according to De Bruin, if the town had held consultations at an early stage and not only after the plans had already been set in stone. De Bruin’s life as a lawyer was a successful one, including financially, and as partner in the law firm of CMS Derks Star Busmann. But she made a major change of course when she made a choice to hang out her own shingle. “I no longer felt at home in the big firm, the drive for billings, toe to toe in the courtroom, and keeping a lid on everything.”

Digna de Bruin Advocatuur Mediation Nederland

She was given an appropriate name for the course she took, Digna, which suggests “reliable” or “credible”. She wanted hers to be a softer approach, to work for justice through sincere attention and empathy. “That may come across as slightly off, because there so many rules jurisprudence while many rules do not ensure justice.” She now works in a way she finds more fitting for various companies and shuttles between her office in Baarn and the Achterhoek where she is active as a pro bono lawyer and mediator for the Tree Foundation. She has an answer for people who think, “What difference does one tree make?”
“That one tree, together with many other “one trees”, is a forest. She points out streams, once confined as canals that now with a great deal of money are allowed to meander since they can now hold a great deal more water in a heavy downpour. “That is an about-face. But when you look at the bigger picture and see how much damage has been caused to the environment, you are suddenly talking about a great deal of irreversible damage.” That is why De Bruin would like to see great attention given in the law to an integral approach that has some room for the rights of other living organisms, in addition to humans. She has been inspired by British attorney Polly Higgins who pleads for the rights of the earth to be recognized worldwide.
“Is it justice if a company can pollute the air because it keeps within your country’s rules? Is that justice for the people and other organisms that must breathe that polluted air? That is the type of question that you have to consider.”
De Bruin is now part of a worldwide network of lawyers who work on the rights of the earth and the rights of the generations to come. “Idealist? Perhaps, but every journey must start with a single step.” She finds telling the example that Higgins cites about slavery: “The first people who wanted to put an end to it got only criticism. The economy would collapse, it could never succeed. But it did succeed, ultimately. So the question is this: why would the economy collapse if we should use worldwide laws to keep the earth habitable for our children and grandchildren?”


DOETINCHEM /BAARN – Enshrining the rights of the earth in a law is not new. Ecuador and Bolivia have included these rights in their constitutions. It was at Bolivia’s intervention that the United Nations declared 22nd April to be the Day of Mother Earth. Worldwide now many organizations are have made it their work to have governments, companies, and investors see the planet in a different way. They should no longer see it as a lump of dirt to be exploited, exhausted, polluted or sold, but as a living organism that not only is the residence for humans but also for millions of other organism and the generations to follow. Lawyers are working in many countries to see that the rights of the earth are enshrined in law and are investigation how violations of that law should be handled. In the meanwhile individual countries are also working on their own initiatives. Hungary, for instance, has a green ombudsman for the future inhabitants of planet Earth. It monitors and aims for the promotion and guarantee of the rights and interests of future generations.