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Thu, 25 Sep, 2014 02:14:01 AM
Financial issues affect rule of law in Finland
FTimes-Xinhua Report by Juhani Niinisto, Sept 25

 

About 200 judges and prosecutors walked out of the Court House in Helsinki on Wednesday in a protest against new government plans to reduce the financing of courts. The demonstration had the backing of the Finnish Bar Association.

Financial circumstances have undermined the rule of law in Finland. Besides the budget cuts facing the courts, the middle class, which is not eligible for financial assistance in legal services, often finds legal fees prohibitively high.

The government budget bill for 2015 has suggested that Finnish courts must save 6 million euros (about 7.7 million U.S. dollars) in next year and the same amount in 2016.

Talking to Xinhua, Kaius Ervasti, the administrative director of the National Research Institute of Legal Policy, said the situation caused by budget cuts was not critical, but gave grounds for being concerned.

Chairman of the Finnish Bar Association Risto Sipila told Xinhua that the rights of individuals and companies in Finland have not yet been compromised through the cutbacks in financing.

"But court processes tend to take longer," he said, "and the delays can be painful for the persons concerned."

The network of district courts is not so dense as it used to be. Sipila said the consolidation has given the advantage of larger units that make specialization possible, but on the other hand distances have become longer.

"And when the local court has closed, lawyers' offices may have closed as well and the citizens' possibilities for consultation and services may have been impaired," said Sipila.

In Finland legal aid is available to residents that do not exceed certain income limits and disposable income after the deduction of rent.

Professional salary levels, however, easily break the limits set to be eligible for free aid or even partial reimbursement. Thus middle earning citizens take a bigger risk in going to court than low income citizens.

The system has created a sort of abyss between the affluent who can always pay and the low income citizens who have access to legal aid.

Martti Linnove, a practising lawyer in Jyvaskyla, central Finland, told Xinhua that the middle income families do have to be careful in considering whether a matter is essential enough to risk the costs and go to court.

"The fees and the length of trials have increased the tendency to agree on matters outside courts, but in those situations both sides may have to compromise," said Linnove.

Legal cost insurance policies are available in Finland, but the terms are often fairly restrictive and the nature of court cases accepted is limited.

Sipila of the Bar Association said the cost of a trial may indeed be a matter of concern for those not entitled to receive public financial assistance.

"If a citizen has to pay the cost of a trial out of his or her own pocket, the sum will be so high that may affect the decision whether to pursue one's rights or not," said Sipila.

In Finland, the average hourly rate charged by a lawyer is around 200 euros plus a value added tax of 23 percent of the charge.

"We at the Bar Association have suggested that the VAT should be reduced or cancelled for costs incurred by private citizens," said Sipila.

The court systems of Nordic countries keep on attracting international praise though. Earlier this year a U.S. based World Justice Project placed criminal law proceedings in Finland as the best in the world.

The Finnish court system does not involve juries. Besides presiding judges, the courts have usually two lay judges appointed through a municipal process, but the lay judges do not participate in all kinds of processes.

As a cost saving measure, courts have, for example, ceased typing out all taped statements on paper, said Sipila. 

 

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