How Litigants in Dutch Courtrooms Come to Trust Judges: The Role of Perceived Procedural Justice, Outcome Favorability, and Other Sociolegal Moderators

Date01 March 2018
Published date01 March 2018
How Litigants in Dutch Courtrooms Come to Trust
Judges: The Role of Perceived Procedural Justice,
Outcome Favorability, and Other Sociolegal
Hilke A. M. Grootelaar Kees van den Bos
This paper examines the hypothesis that litigants’ perceived procedural justice
is positively associated with their trust in judges. We argue that although this
association might seem quite robust, it can vary across contexts. In particular,
we suggest that the nature and magnitude of the association between proce-
dural justice and trust in judges depends on outcome concerns, and other soci-
olegal moderators such as outcome importance and prior court experience.
We tested our predictions in three different types of law cases among 483
litigants at court hearings of the district court of the Mid-Netherlands. As pre-
dicted, our results indicate that perceived procedural justice was positively
associated with trust in judges when outcomes were relatively favorable, and
that this association was even stronger when outcomes were relatively unfavor-
able. The courtroom context studied here enabled us to explore how other
sociolegal variables moderated these relationships.
Judicial dispute resolution is an aspect of our legal system that
matters a great deal to citizens involved in disputes. Judges are
important representatives of societal institutions that need citizens’
trust to operate effectively (Tyler 2006). They are, therefore, justifi-
ably concerned with the public’s confidence in their functioning. In
the current paper, we examine how people come to trust judges
and provide support for the idea that trust in judges is elicited by
litigants’ experience of procedural justice.
We studied the procedural justice-trust relationship among real
litigants involved in actual cases at real court hearings. These liti-
gants had real outcomes at stake such as traffic fines, and imprison-
ments, and were understandably preoccupied with issues such as
whether they would receive social benefits the next month or
whether they would be sentenced by the criminal law judge. We
The authors would like to thank three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments
and suggestions and Jan FekkeYbema for his help with the statistical analyses reported.
Please direct all correspondence to Hilke A. M. Grootelaar, Montaigne Centre for
Judicial Administration and Conflict Resolution, Utrecht University, Bijlhouwerstraat 6,
3511 ZC Utrecht, The Netherlands; email:
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-
NonCommercial-NoDerivs License, which permits use and distribution in any medium,
provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non-commercial and no
modifications or adaptations are made.
Law & Society Review, Volume 52, Number 1 (2018)
C2018 The Authors Law & Society Review published by Wiley Periodicals,
Inc. on behalf of Law and Society Association
will argue that these outcome concerns can influence the role per-
ceived procedural justice plays when litigants form their judgments
of trust in judges. More specifically, we believe that whether people
benefit from the judge’s decision (i.e., outcome favorability) and
what people have at stake (i.e., outcome importance) moderate the
proposed relationship between perceived procedural justice and
trust in judges.
We conducted our study in the Netherlands, a country that is
relatively understudied in the international research literature on
law and society. After all, many or most studies on perceived pro-
cedural justice and trust in law have been done in the United
States. By studying Dutch court hearings, our study adds to the
debated cross-cultural generality of procedural justice findings
(Brockner et al. 2001; Kidder & Muller 1991; Lind et al. 1997).
Van den Bos et al. (2010), for example, found meaningful cross-
cultural differences in reactions to perceived procedural justice
between participants from the United States and the Netherlands,
revealing that being better off than others is a norm that tends to
be more salient in the United States than in the Netherlands (see
also Hofstede 1998). Social comparisons, such as being better off
than others, play an important role in how people respond to
their outcomes (Adams 1965; Van den Bos et al. 2006), which
raises the question of whether outcome favorability will moderate
the association between perceived procedural justice and trust in
judges, as has been suggested on the basis of studies done in
organizational and other contexts (for overviews, see Brockner
2010; Brockner & Wiesenfeld 1996).
In three different types of law cases among 483 litigants at
court hearings of the district court of the Mid-Netherlands, we aim
to better understand how and when procedural justice and out-
come concerns matter both separately and in an interactive sense.
We extend the current knowledge in three ways. First, we provide
support for the existence of a positive relationship between proce-
dural justice and trust in judges in a real-life courtroom context in
the Netherlands. Second, we demonstrate how important sociole-
gal variables, in particular outcome-related variables such as out-
come favorability and outcome importance, might moderate this
relationship. Third, in addition to providing empirical insight
about the relationships between procedural justice, trust in judges,
and outcome concerns, we aim to conceptually clarify how to mea-
sure these concepts in real-life courtroom settings.
Trust in Judges
Trust in legal authorities such as the police and the courts is
important, in part because it results in public cooperation with
Grootelaar & VanDen Bos 235
these authorities and builds institutional legitimacy and compliance
with the law (Tyler & Huo 2002; Tyler & Jackson 2014). Legal
authorities are justifiably concerned with the public’s confidence in
their functioning and compliance with their decisions. In the
United States, for example, the National Center for State Courts
(NCSC) frequently carries out nationwide surveys to measure
public confidence and trust in the courts (NCSC 2005, 2015). The
European Social Survey (ESS) reveals the variation in trust in
justice and legitimacy of justice institutions across Europe (see
Jackson et al. 2011). The Dutch judiciary, too, is paying more
attention to people’s trust in judges, due to the turbulent times of
waning legitimate power, reflected by an increasing number of
requests for a judge to be removed, the public’s growing attention
for judicial errors, negative publicity in the media, and the growth
of so-called political processes (Bokhorst & Witteveen 2013).
Our understanding of trust in legal institutions is currently
mixed. In some studies, the public has a moderate amount of
trust in judges, which appeases us with the message that courts
are still the most trusted branch of government, even though cer-
tain members of society currently tend to express less confidence
in them (NCSC 2015). In other studies, the public in several
countries has been slowly losing confidence in the justice system,
which suggests that the justice system is not often among the
most trusted institutions in a country (Van de Walle & Raine
2008). In yet other studies, the public’s trust in judges seems to
fluctuate in more or less the same way as the public’s confidence
in other societal institutions does, tending to decrease when
confidence in those institutions is shrinking (Arends & Schmeets
2015). Thus, the same negative and positive images of the judi-
ciary recur with varying degrees of forcefulness in the different
studies (Rottman & Tomkins 1999). Furthermore, some studies
measure “trust” in a rather general way and do not say much
about what it exactly means for individuals to trust judges with
whom they are confronted in court (Griffiths 2011). In short,
trust in judges is not fully understood. Our study will add to our
understanding of how litigants come to trust judges by measuring
it as precisely as possible directly after litigants have entered the
courtroom with items that we believe are valid and meaningful to
the litigants and hence have appropriate levels of face validity
(Brewer 2000).
Perceived Procedural Justice
People react more positively toward decision-making authorities
when they perceive a decision-making process as fairer. Procedural
236 How Litigants Come to Trust Judges

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