Law student wins lawsuit, municipality refuses to compensate other students

Excluding students from energy allowance goes against anti-discrimination law

Pim van Achthoven
Photo: Pim van Achthoven

Law student Pim van Achthoven lives on his own in a studio apartment at IBB. He has no side job, borrows as much money as he can from DUO and, like other low-income households, has been having to tighten the belt due to the rising gas and electricity bills. Last year, when he applied for the one-off 1,300-euro energy compensation, he was denied. He met all the eligibility criteria for the benefit, except for one: he was a student. The municipality of Utrecht categorically excluded students from the benefit, following the guidelines set by the Dutch cabinet. Pim deemed himself discriminated against and took the matter to court. Last Monday, the judge ruled in his favour.

According to Pim, the current rule treats students differently for no justifiable reason. Students whose income, living situation and energy bills meet the requirements for compensation are in the same financial situation as the non-students for whom the benefit is intended. The municipality states that the main reasoning for excluding students was that their living situations vary greatly and some are supported by their parents. According to Pim — and now according to the court as well — this argument does not hold water: living situations vary among all Dutch citizens, not just students, so this justification cannot be considered.

Practical exercise
Impressively, Pim prepared and defended his case himself. He also made his points all by himself, without any union. That didn't scare him at all: "I'm in the third year of my Bachelor's and had already been in court for a civil case before, so I know how to build a good argument. I've also been in touch with unions and lawyers, who checked and approved my arguments ahead of the hearing."

Three times
Pim is not the only student taking the municipality to court over this issue. Students in Amsterdam and Nijmegen, supported by student unions, did the same. In both cases, the judge decided that the exclusion of students from the energy compensation was unlawful. That's why Pim is relieved but not exactly surprised that he won his case. "A new lawsuit is always exciting but the decision met my expectations."

Even so, Pim thinks his case means an additional win compared to the two others: "In Amsterdam and Nijmegen, the question was evaluated by three judges, something that is usually done in complex cases. Now, there was only one judge, which goes to show how clear it is to the judge that the exclusion of students from the benefit isn't acceptable from a legal point of view."

The government seems to have come to this conclusion as well. Reacting to the decision, the Minister of Poverty Policy, Carola Schouten, announced that the three rulings will be taken into consideration for the energy compensation of 2023. The proposal is soon to be submitted to the House of Representatives.

Consequences for students in Utrecht
To Pim, the consequences of his lawsuit are clear: he will be receiving 1,300 euros as a means of compensation for the increased expenses with gas and electricity. But what about other students also expecting to be able to claim the allowance? Those with pending applications or who can still lodge an objection or appeal to an application that's been denied still have the right to receive the allowance. That's no more than 600 students. This procedure is expected to cost the municipality of Utrecht a million euros, as well as a lot of time and effort for which they say they barely have time.

However, that doesn't solve the problem of the energy compensation of 2022, from which some 15,000 Utrecht residents have been excluded, according to an estimate by the municipality. Linda Voortman, alderman for work and income: "The municipality has its back to the wall here. Our painful conclusion is that a group of residents has been harmed by faulty policy at the national level, and we don't have the resources or legal options to help students out. That's why we urge the government once again to come up with a national solution for this problem."

In a letter to the municipal council, the aldermen write: "We blame the national government heavily for this, considering it has denied to come up with a solid, nationwide solution for students up until now. As previously stated, we're going to keep on lobbying in the hopes not to be confronted with this issue one more time in 2023." Both the municipality and students can only hope that the Dutch government will have a better proposal this year. All eyes are now on the new draft bill.