Ton Hartlief Ton Hartlief Arjen Schmitz

The young veteran

Written by  Annelotte Huiskes Tuesday, 14 June 2016 00:00

Ton Hartlief, professor of Private Law, has been named best teacher by his students in Maastricht and best liability lawyer in the Netherlands by his professional peers. He became a professor in Leiden at the age of just 29, and recently – still shy of his 50th birthday – took up one of the highest posts available to a lawyer: advocate general at the Supreme Court of the Netherlands. An academic at heart, he remains level-headed: “It’s all a matter of hard work and a bit of luck.”  Here he looks back on a successful career.

“The first defining moment in my career was a lecture by the renowned professor of Legal History Jan Lokin. It was an Open Day at the University of Groningen and he gave such an inspiring talk about Roman law that I decided on the spot to study law”, Hartlief explains. “In high school I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I took a career test and it turned out I was analytical and had an affinity for argumentation, so law seemed like a good option.”

Initially, however, the programme was disappointing. Criminal law didn’t appeal to him; private law was enjoyable, but only became really interesting in the third year, when Hartlief was made a student assistant and came into contact with the academic side of the subject. He recalls that, even as a young boy, he was already keen on writing. “I had this romantic image of the scholar sitting behind a desk piled high with books and papers and just writing. And now I’m in the fortunate position of having an office just like that here at the law faculty”, he says, gesturing around the mountains of paper on his desk and shelves heaving with reference books. “This is where I work best, so I’m hoping I can still keep this room now I’m only part time.”

Nose in the books
While he enjoyed the student nightlife, Hartlief could be found by day at the faculty, studying. He refrained from joining a student association – ‘I don’t need all that many friends’ – and on weekends he went back to Terschelling, where he was born and raised, to play football. His father, a sailor for Shell, was often away for months at a time, leaving Ton at home with his mother and younger sister. Like all islanders, they had to commute to the mainland for high school. Ton and his sister boarded during the week with a nice family in Leeuwarden and went home at weekends. “You had to find your own way. My sister and I are quite different. In those days she was ‘alternative’, a punk girl; compared to her I seemed ordinary. I’m a relatively steady person, and where my sister sought attention I tended to keep a low profile. Maybe it also had to do with my being the eldest, and often the only man in the house.” He was a fast learner and enjoyed reading, including several parts of Loe de Jong’s series on World War II, which his father collected. “Loe de Jong was the kind of scholar I had great admiration for. I read some of his books from A to Z, which was strange, seeing as they’re reference books and not intended to be read from cover to cover. If one of my children were to do that now I’d strongly advise against it”, he laughs.

This brings Hartlief to his own family history. His paternal grandfather, Tedo Hartlief, was in the resistance and one of the prisoners executed during the Nazi massacre at the Woeste Hoeve in March 1945. His grandfather on his mother’s side was a forced labourer on the Burma Railway, and she and her mother were held in a Japanese prison camp. “It wasn’t exactly a taboo at home, but if you didn’t ask, it wasn’t brought up. Also, my father and I are true northerners: we don’t bare our souls all that easily.”

Another pivotal moment in his career was his acquaintance with Chris Brunner, one of the professors he worked with as a student assistant and who would later become his PhD supervisor. “Brunner was a big deal in the field of private law. A very interesting man you could talk to for hours. Some days you’d bump into him in the corridor in the morning and by mid-afternoon you were still standing around philosophising about all sorts of things. That was an important period during which I learnt a lot. He was my teacher in the classical sense of the word; one of the reasons I find teaching extremely important and take it very seriously. As a lecturer you hope, of course, to plant a seed like that yourself now and then.”

Teachers may have been important, but chance also played a role. “I was close to finishing my thesis when a PhD vacancy opened up. Brunner summoned me and said, ‘Get it done fast – there’s a spot here for you straight away.’ I’d just turned 22 when I started my research on termination for non-performance; one of the topics Brunner had on his list.”

On the move
There was no time for dilly-dallying during his PhD, either: in 1993, at the age of 26 and before he had even finished his dissertation, he was offered the post of associate professor in Maastricht. Three years later he moved on again, this time to Leiden to become professor of Civil Law. “Leiden had that aura of being the oldest, biggest and best university, especially when it came to law. So for me that was a great opportunity.” But financial cutbacks meant the teaching policy clashed with Hartlief’s vision, and, especially after the birth of his first son, the Randstad began to chafe on him. He missed the open spaces and nature. “I love birds, shells and plants. I had to cross three highways before I even got to a nature strip there.” He returned to Maastricht in 2001.

In recent years, Hartlief has seen the traditional programme in Dutch Law – his personal strength –squeezed by the focus on European and international law and English-language instruction. And more and more often he catches himself thinking, ‘I’ve seen all this before’. “That’s what happens when you go through everything young: it doesn’t take long to feel like a veteran.” It was high time, then, for the next step – and what a step it is. For a lawyer, it can’t get much more prestigious than the public prosecutor’s office of the Supreme Court. “I’m pleased about that too of course, but the main motive is being able to apply my academic knowledge in practice.”

Problem solving
As advocate general, Hartlief will advise the Supreme Court in cases concerning his areas of expertise: private law and, in particular, liability law. “A major theme in my field and something I’ve been working on for years now is compensation in case of accidental injury, caused by a traffic accident, an accident at work or medical error. As a society we want to protect the victims, but what’s the best way to do that – social security, insurance or a liability system? Why is there liability protection for certain forms of injury but not for others? If you lose a leg on the operating table the legal consequences are different than if you lose it at work, and different again if it was a traffic accident. And if the accident happens unilaterally because you trip over a doorstep, there’s yet another system. Shouldn’t we bring all these into line? Where one situation is well protected by the law, someone else with the same injury ends up with nothing.”

Also part of Hartlief’s remit are damages resulting from terrorism. “People can sue bodies and organisations; take Brussels Airport, for example. Was there adequate security to deal with a bombing? Did the government appropriately evaluate the intelligence it received? In this sense these are the ‘golden years’ for research on liability law. We don’t have clear answers to these sorts of questions, and research is needed to examine whether our current laws can provide a solution or whether we should change tack altogether. That’s the kind of puzzle I like. At the Supreme Court I can work on such questions in a less abstract way, as part of concrete cases. That makes it all the more exciting.”

Asked what ultimately drives him, Hartlief shrugs and sighs deeply. “That’s a difficult question. Of course I could say something like ‘making the world a better place’. Obviously I have opinions on how to improve things, but whether that’s what motivates me ... A shrink might say that I place a lot of importance on performing well, or perhaps that I’m still trying to please my parents. Could well be the case. But the bottom line is that I just love to analyse and unravel problems.”

Ton Hartlief (1966) is advocate general at the Supreme Court and part-time professor of Private Law at Maastricht University. From 1996 to 2001 he was professor of Civil Law at Leiden University. He obtained his PhD in 1994 for his dissertation on termination for non-performance. He previously served as editor in chief of the journal Aansprakelijkheid, Verzekering en Schade and as ‘annotator’ for Ars Aequi and Nederlandse Jurisprudentie. At present he is, among other things, a member of the editorial board of the Nederlands Juristenblad.

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