G.J. Wiarda prize for students awarded to Michael Schut

Michael Schut with jury chair Prof. Rob Widdershoven

On 14 September, the G.J. Wiarda Prize for best thesis was awarded to Michael Schut. He received the prize for his thesis on the role of  ‘narrativity’ in criminal trials: based on the established facts, the defendant's lawyer – and the prosecutor as well – tells a story about what ‘really’ happened. Therefore, a criminal trial can also be seen as a battle between competing narratives, with two parties tryjng to convince the judge of the accused's guilt or innocence. The jury found his thesis “written in a very clear and beautiful Dutch, making it an academic page turner as well.” Moreover, his insight can help prevent miscarriages of justice.

The G.J. Wiarda Prize was established by Utrecht University's School of Law and is intended for students of the Master's programme Legal Research. The jury had quite a task choosing between the 11 contenders, according to jury chair Prof. Rob Widdershoven. “[But] reading them was a real joy, because they contain a wealth of high level legal thinking and analysis”, he assured those present. 

The theses concerned every possible area of law and every aspect of legal research, from private law to criminal law, from national public law to European and international public law, from social law to human rights law and artificial intelligence.

Three candidates

After deliberation, the jury managed to narrow the list down to three candidates. Besides Michael Schut, they were:

  • Jock Gardiner: Hard Euroscepticism and Constitutional Conventions in the European Union – Considering the Role of the Court of Justice of the European Union in their Protection and Enforcement
  • Marleen Kappé: Sticks, Carrots and the Jewel in the Crown. Reasons of Belgian last instance courts’ judges and law clerks (not) to refer preliminary questions to the Court of Justice of the European Union

Jock Gardiner's thesis is based on the premise that the functioning of the European Parliament depends largely on 'constitutional conventions', meaning on unwritten rules rather than 'hard' rules. Such tacit agreements can only work effectively if the parties in parliament actually accept them. But whether that acceptance will be there in the near future is uncertain because of the growing presence of eurosceptic parties in parliament. Jock's thesis is about whether these unwritten rules can be legally enforced at the EU Court of Justice. “In his thesis Jock examines and answers this original question in the affirmative be applying a combination of political science and European constitutional law”, the jury said in its report. 

Marleen Kappé conducted an in-depth study on why Belgian supreme courts (sometimes) choose to submit 'preliminary questions' to the CJEU. A preliminary question allows a lower court to seek advice from a higher court on the interpretation of a particular rule of law before actually ruling on it itself. Marleen made an overview of all cases which were referred by Belgium's highest courts to the ECJ for an opinion, and she also interviewed judges and court clerks on the subject. “Her thesis contains a beautiful combination of political science theory, legal doctrinal research and empirical legal studies. The combined approach is very innovative and adds a lot to academic body of knowledge”, according to the jury.

Criminal trial as stage for competing narratives

Realizing that the winning narrative does not always reflect the reality but is a construction only is essential for everybody involved in a criminal process, because – and that is an important message of Michael’s thesis – it may prevent miscarriage of justice.

From the jury's opinion on Michael Schut's thesis

Michael Schut's winning thesis – entitled Verhalend strafrecht; De rol van narrativiteit in de strafrechtelijke toerekening [Narrative Criminal Law; The role of narrativity in criminal attribution] – is, as mentioned, about the role of narrativity in determining criminal guilt. The jury calls it an “intriguing and very original thesis”, on the notion that between the facts of a crime and the normative assessment of guilt, there is a normativity gap that can only be bridged through narrative mediation, i.e. by casting the facts in the form of a story. Viewed this way, a criminal trial is a battle between competing narratives of the prosecutor and the lawyer, both trying to construct a ‘plot with an end’ with which they hope to convince the judge of the accused's guilt or innocence.

In his thesis, Michael illustrates the legal theory of narrativity using the trial of the character Dmitri from Dostoevsky's book The Brothers Karamazov. “In this book the Public Prosecutor’s narrative wins. He convinces the jury that Dmitri was the murderer, although in fact he was not”, jury chair Widdershoven said. Thus, the winning narrative does not always reflect reality but is only a construct, and claims based on it therefore are not absolute but relative. “Realizing this is essential for everybody involved in a criminal process, because – and that is an important message of Michael’s thesis – it may prevent miscarriage of justice.”

The thesis written by Michael Schut is published by Celsus juridische uitgeverij.

About the G.J. Wiarda Prize for students

The G.J. Wiarda Prize for students of the Master's programme in Legal Research was established by Utrecht University School of Law, part of the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance. The prize is named after former Utrecht professor of administrative law Gerrit Wiarda, who also taught private law and legal theory. He was also a judge in the Dutch Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.