The Utrecht Centre for Accountability and Liability Law (UCALL) is a group of academic researchers within Utrecht University’s Law Department who have together set out to conduct multidisciplinary research on the boundaries of accountability and liability in the Netherlands, in Europe, and beyond.

Programme leaders of the research centre are Elbert de Jong and Johannes Bijlsma.

Our field of research

Afzetlint met waarschuwing "gevaar", in het Spaans "peligro"

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 is 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.

That usually happens by establishing the liability of that person or entity. In this process 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.

But should all of this in fact be possible? Are there no limits to the possibility of invoking someone’s liability? Is there a need for a control mechanism of any kind? Or 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?

Our focus

Man staat met rug naar ons toe tegenover een muur

Thinking about these and other fundamental questions focuses attention especially on 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 natural urge of liability law to expand, 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 development lie.

How far does a person’s legal liability extend?

Within this approach, the term ‘limits’ will be understood in a broad sense. It will not solely concern national legal limits (‘how far does a person’s legal liability extend?’). It also especially concerns the exploration of the following: the boundaries between the various sub-areas of the law (private law, criminal law, administrative law, and international and European law); the boundaries between different legal systems (in Europe and beyond); the limits in these systems and its institutional design (as can be identified from the operation and effects of the actors that determine the limits, such as the courts, the legislature, the government, supervisory authorities and other ‘regulators’); the limits on liability and accountability in light of other disciplines (economics, psychology, sociology, etc.); and the boundaries between liability and accountability. This way of analyzing, exploring and elaborating on issues of accountability and liability is an innovative research methodology for lawyers.

We, as UCALL researchers, call it the multidimensional approach. Its main feature is to increasingly include external perspectives on the limits on liability and accountability. Liability law is not only studied from within, but in combination with one or more external perspectives. Those perspectives are obtained from internal and external comparative law as well as insights derived from other disciplines.