The legal system originated during the period of Swedish rule, and portions of the Swedish General Code of 1734 were extant in Finnish law even in the late 1980s. The country's first court of appeals was established at Turku in 1634. The modern division of the Finnish courts into two main branches--general courts, dealing with civil suits and criminal cases, and administrative courts, regulating the actions of the country's bureaucracy--also dates from this time. This division was formalized in 1918 when two sections of the Senate, the body that had governed Finland during the period of Russian rule, became the newly independent country's two highest courts. The Senate Department of Justice became the Supreme Court, and part of the Senate Finance Department was the basis of the Supreme Administrative Court. The two court systems are entirely separate, and they have no jurisdiction over one another. The establishment of the two courts was confirmed by the Constitution Act of 1919. Overseeing the system of justice are the chancellor of justice--the country's highest guardian of the law and its chief prosecutor--and the parliamentary ombudsman. Although these two officials have largely parallel functions and each is required to submit an annual report of his activities to parliament, the former is appointed for life by the president and is a member of the Council of State, whereas the latter is chosen for a four-year term by the Eduskunta. Both officials receive complaints from citizens about the conduct of civil servants, and on their own may investigate all public officials and may order prosecutors to proceed against them. The chancellor of justice supervises public prosecutors, and he also has the unrestricted right to investigate private persons. Both officials may call on either of the high courts for assistance.
The High Court of Impeachment may be convened for cases dealing with illegal official acts by cabinet ministers, judges of the two supreme courts, or the chancellor of justice. Members of this court, used only three times since its formation in 1922, are the chief judges of the two supreme courts and the six courts of appeal, a professor of law from the University of Helsinki, and six representatives from the Eduskunta.
As in the other countries of Nordic Europe, there is no constitutional court. Issues dealt with by a court of this kind elsewhere are handled by the Eduskunta's Constitutional Committee.
According to Article 5 of the Constitution Act, all Finns are equal before the law, and Article 13 of the same act stipulates that they may be tried only in a court of their own jurisdiction. No temporary courts are permitted. Legislation passed in 1973 provides for free legal assistance to those in need as well as for free court proceedings in a number of courts. Trials in lower courts are usually open to the public. Records of trials in higher courts are made public.
Judges are appointed for life, with retirement set at age seventy, and they may be removed only for serious cause. With the exception of some lay judges in circuit courts and in some town courts, all judges hold legal degrees from one of the country's three law schools. The judiciary in the late 1980s was a rather closed profession, and only judges for administrative courts were occasionally selected from outside its ranks.
Defendants have no obligation to employ an attorney for their defense in a Finnish court, and may represent themselves or be represented by another layman rather than by a lawyer. Nevertheless, in most cases heard in general courts and in many argued in administrative courts, trained legal specialists are employed.
The general court system handles criminal cases and civil suits and has three levels: lower courts, courts of appeal, and the Supreme Court. There are two kinds of lower courts: town courts, numbering 30 in the entire country; and circuit courts, totaling 147 in 71 judicial districts. Town courts consist of three judges, all trained professionals except in some small towns. One of these judges is the chief judge chosen by the Supreme Court; the others are selected by local authorities. Decisions are made on a collegial basis. Circuit courts consist of a judge, chosen by the Supreme Court, and five to seven lay judges, i.e., persons without legal training, chosen by local authorities for a term of four years. Decisions on cases in courts of this type are made by the professional judge, unless he is overruled by the unanimous vote of the lay members of the court. Larger cities also have housing courts that deal with rent and accommodations.
Appeals from lower courts are addressed to the six courts of appeal located at Helsinki, Turku, Vaasa, Kouvola, Kuopio, and Rovaniemi. Most cases at these courts are heard by professional three-judge panels; more important cases are tried before a plenary session of judges if the chief judge so decides. In cases involving senior government officials, a court of appeals may serve as the court of first instance. Judges of the courts of appeal are appointed by the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court, located in Helsinki, consists of a chief justice, or a president, and twenty-one judges usually working in five-judge panels. It hears cases involving appeals of decisions of appellate courts where serious errors are alleged to have occurred, or where important precedents might be involved. A sentence from a court of appeals may go into effect immediately, despite an appeal to the Supreme Court, but it may be postponed while the case is pending if the Supreme Court so decides. The chief justice of the Supreme Court is appointed by the nation's president, and the other judges of that court are appointed by the president on the recommendation of the Supreme Court.
The administrative courts system consists of twelve county courts, one in each of the country's twelve provinces, and the Supreme Administrative Court, located in Helsinki. All judges in administrative courts are professionals, appointed in the same manner as judges who sit in general courts. Judges work in threejudge panels at the provincial level and in five-judge panels in the Supreme Administrative Court. When appropriate, the latter meets in plenary sessions to hear especially important cases.
Administrative courts deal with appeals against administrative decisions by government agencies, although in some cases appeals are directed to higher administrative levels within the government. About 80 percent of the cases of the county courts involve appeals of government tax decisions; the remainder deal with questions relating to construction, welfare, planning, and local government. The Supreme Administrative Court handles appeals of county court and central government board decisions that affect, or are affected by, administrative law. About 50 percent of the cases heard in the Supreme Administrative Court involve questions about taxes.
Finland also has special courts to handle civil cases; some of these courts render judgments from which there is no appeal. The four land courts settle disputes about the division of land, and their decisions may be appealed to the Supreme Court. Appeals from the insurance court, which handles social insurance cases, also may be appealed to the Supreme Court. Cases that involve water use are dealt with in the three water courts, and may be appealed first to the water court of appeals and from there to the Supreme Court. If the case involves water permits, appeals go to the Supreme Administrative Court. Decisions of the labor court and the marketing court may not be appealed. The former treats disputes about collective bargaining agreements in either the public or the private sector. Its president and vice president are lawyers; its remaining members come from groups representing labor and management. The marketing court regulates disagreements about consumer protection and unfair competition.
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