Science
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ThebreakthroughLuuk de Boer

A witness as an external pair of eyes

Photo by Reyer Boxem
Academic research seldom has swift results. This series is about that moment the puzzle pieces do fall into place. Part 5: Legal scholar Luuk de Boer discovered why witnesses are so important to the law in a French classroom.
4 December om 11:03 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 4 December 2023
om 11:04 uur.
December 4 at 11:03 AM.
Last modified on December 4, 2023
at 11:04 AM.
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Door Rob van der Wal

4 December om 11:03 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 4 December 2023
om 11:04 uur.
Avatar photo

By Rob van der Wal

December 4 at 11:03 AM.
Last modified on December 4, 2023
at 11:04 AM.

When Luuk de Boer spontaneously attended a class by renowned French lawyer Alain Supiot in Paris, everything suddenly made sense. He finally understood the role of witnesses in the field of law. ‘When Supiot started to speak, I had this moment of hyperfocus.’

His research on the role of witnesses started with something small. ‘I found several contracts from antiquity that were signed by a witness’, the assistant professor of law says. ‘Whenever someone bought a house, there were sometimes ten people in attendance to confirm the sale by signing the contract. If there were ever any conflicts about the sale, these witnesses could be called on.’

He found more witnesses as his research progressed: someone making a report in court, for example, or someone acting as a witness during a wedding. Witnesses even have an important place in mythology. ‘Take the blind witness Homer in ancient Greece, for instance’, says De Boer. ‘The story goes that he was given the gift of precognition in return for his blindness. That makes him the perfect witness in the Trojan war.’

Connection

Professional literature separates the various types of witnesses, he says. ‘But that is too practical and isolated. I wanted to know the connection between the witness who signs a contract and the witness who stands up in court. I felt like there was something that covered them all.’

The conundrum plagued De Boer for a long time, until he decided to attend a lecture by Supiot, one of the most influential legal experts in the world. He was a little late and had only just sat down when Supiot started to speak. ‘He said the law could be considered a third person. That’s when the penny dropped for me: witnesses are third persons in all cases. They have to ensure that people keep their promises. Like a pair of external eyes for the judge, or a witness during a wedding.’

It truly felt like a breakthrough. ‘After one or two sentences, I understood what Supiot was talking about, and a few sentences later, the true meaning of his words came to me. I spent the rest of the lecture listening to him, in awe.’

Foundation

Back home, De Boer immediately turned to his books to try and make the connection between various witnesses from history. ‘I was trying to look for anything that would poke holes in my theory, but I couldn’t find any. I still feel like the concept of witnesses as a third person that oversees everything holds water.’

Although that doesn’t mean that everyone in the law community immediately accept his ideas. ‘If I tell them that witnesses should be one of the foundations of the legal process, legal theorists always call me crazy. But once I explain it they’re usually open to the idea.’

Better idea

His discovery has a larger purpose, says De Boer. ‘For years, people pretty much ignored the role of witnesses. Now, we have a better idea of the function that a witness at a wedding serves or what a notary means to a cadastral agency. People don’t always realise that you could get into trouble if you don’t have that person.

De Boer is putting the final touches on the definitive book that’s part of his dissertation. He hasn’t spoken to his inspiration Supiot since he made his discovery. ‘When you’re writing a dissertation, you never think your discovery will have much impact. But now that it looks like it will, I might have to thank him sometime after all.’

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