On damages

On Jani’s request, a few words on compensation for damages caused by a crime.

This mini-essay is part of my Finnish criminal justice series. See the introductory essay for more information and an overview of the Finnish criminal court system. I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.

The main principle is that the perpetrator is obligated to compensate any damage caused by his or her criminal act fully – not more, not less. This includes any damage to property, as well as personal injury (in which case hospital bills etc must be compensated, as well as pain and suffering), and intangible personal damage (such as defamation of character, mental distress, loss of income). If the crime resulted in someone’s death, the perpetrator is liable for the upkeep of the deceased’s dependents, and in some cases must compensate the suffering of the deceased’s family.

Generally, the main criminal trial will also consider the question of damages. The injured parties must demand compensation for damages, specifying the damage and the monetary amount demanded. The defendant must respond to the demand in two parts, for each specific demand separately:

  1. Does the defendant agree or disagree that the claimed damage occurred and was caused by him or her during committing the alleged crime?
  2. Does the defendant agree that if such damage had occurred, the demanded monetary compensation would be fair, and if not, what would the defendant consider fair compensation for such damage?

The first question is usually called causation (peruste in Finnish), while the second question is usually called amount (määrä in Finnish). It should be noted that the two questions are independent of each other. The defendant must answer the second question even if the answer to the first question “No”. This often confuses defendants, especially when they are not represented by counsel. The idea is that if the court finds the defendant guilty, it still has the defendant’s opinion on whether the claimed amount of damage is correct or not.

The amount demanded by the injured party is the upper limit and the amount conceded by the defendant in his or her answer to the second guestion is the lower limit when the court considers the amount of damages (after it has determined guilt and causation). Because of this, injured parties tend to inflate their demands, and defendants tend to underestimate in their response. The court then considers the evidence presented and (usually, unless the monetary amount of damage is clear from the evidence) estimates the damage within the limits set by the demand and the response.

The Finnish legal system does not sanction punitive damages. Compensation of damages must be based on the actual damage that occurred, either as proven or as estimated if proof is hard to obtain. For most cases (remember, most cases are not very grave), the amounts run in the order of tens or hundreds of euros. Typical non-grave cases that easily generate huge damages concern material damage to expensive objects or illegal copying (copyright).

3 thoughts on “On damages

  1. Demonstrating factual damage and costs to recover from them is the easy part. What I wonder is how immaterial losses like suffering are accounted for. Would you care to explain that part a little more?

  2. Thank you for this essay! I have to say it really clarified the idea behind ‘amount’ for me, since before reading this I really was one of those defendants confused by it…

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