The Finnish Criminal Court System

(Reposted from old blog)

Inspired by Matthew Palmer’s writings (1, 2) on his experiences about the Australian judicial system, I decided to write a series of essays on the Finnish legal system, mostly to contrast it with the universally familiar United State system (even if that universal familiarity is a little skewed by generally having been obtained from dramatizations and not actual court practice). I will concentrate on criminal cases.

I will write based on my personal experience as a part of the judicial system, and I will be supplementing the experience with my personal research into law. I am not legally trained, but I have read a fair bit of law and related literature.

I am a lay judge in the Jyväskylä District court. I will explain the significance of that later, but I hope it suffices to say, here, that I have sat on the bench, as part of four-judge panels, since March this year, in ten sessions each a day long, and each containing at least two, usually four or five criminal cases.

Some highlights:

  • There are no plea bargains. With some minor exceptions, every criminal case is tried in a full court session.
  • There is no jury. Criminal cases are tried as a rule by a panel of four judges, of which one is legally trained and three are lay judges, each having an equal vote.

See the comments for pointers to later essays and writings in this series.

A criminal case begins when the police becomes aware of a possible crime. If there is reason to suspect that a crime has been committed, the police conducts a so-called preliminary investigation, the purpose of which is to turn up all evidence related to the suspected criminal act, including trying to establish the identity of the perpetrator. A completed preliminary investigation is turned over to a prosecutor.

The prosecutor makes the first legal evaluation of the case based on the results of the preliminary investigation. The prosecutor can decide that there is no case, or that the likely crime is minor enough that it is not worth prosecution (usually in these cases, the injured party has been compensated by
the perpetrator). The injured party may then press charges themselves; otherwise the case is closed should either of these happen. If the prosecutor determines that there is probable cause to believe that the suspect did in fact commit the crime in question, he or she is legally required to press charges.

The District Court is the first instance of the judicial system that hears the case. In complex cases, it holds a preliminary hearing where the parties (the prosecutor, the defendant, and any injured parties) determine points of dispute and agree on the sequence of evidence presentation in the main trial. This session
is presided by a single legally trained judge.

The main trial is usually held in front of a four-judge panel. The presiding judge is always legally trained, and the three others are lay judges. In complex cases, the panel consists often of five or six judges, containing either and additional legally trained judge, or an additional lay judge, or both.

I will write a separate essay, probably a dramatized presentation of a fictional case, on the content of the main trial. I’ll just note that most cases require from half an hour to two hours for the main trial. The longest trial I have been part of took less than a day. Complicated matters (complex murder cases, many white-collar cases) can, of course, create long trials.

At the conclusion of the main trial, all parties and every member of the audience are removed from the courtroom, and the judge panel starts deliberating. Obviously, the legally-trained presiding judge is in primary control of the deliberation, but every judge on the panel has an equal vote in the decision. All the lay judges and the legally trained judge (or judges) are equally involved in deciding the facts of the case based on the evidence, in making the legal judgment of whether a crime has been committed, and in
determining the punishment and other consequences, as appropriate. The deliberations are kept secret forever.

Finnish courts of law are entitled to free evaluation of the evidence presented. There are very few formal rules of evidence; for this reason, Finnish courtroom rarely hears the word “Objection!”. The panel of the judges hear all of the evidence, and it decides for itself what part of it it believes and what it does not believe. The ultimate standard for conviction is, of course, the absence of reasonable doubt.

The presiding judge writes the opinion of the court based on the opinions of the individual members, including a statement of the reasoning used to reach the decision. In the rare case of a split decision, the presiding judge (or perhaps the other legally trained judge, if there is one) writes up also the minority opinion. If there are two tied opinions, the one favoring the defendant becomes the court opinion. In most cases, the decision, including the reasoning writeup and any minority opinion, is public.

Any party may contest the decision in part or in full, in order to seek a decision more favourable to them. Any party that intends to do that must inform the court of this intention within a week of the decision. If no party registers such an intention, the district court ruling becomes final. A party that registered the intention in time may file an appeal with the relevant Appeals Court within 30 days of the decision.

The Appeals Court is obligated to retry those parts of the case that the appeals contested, unless the appeals are clearly bogus. The Appeals Court is competent to retry even the evidence, in contrast to (my understanding of) the US Appeals Courts. There are no lay judges in Appeals Courts.

Any party may seek to contest the Appeals Court decision (or a part of it) in front of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is entitled to select the cases it hears, and it usually hears only those cases where it expects to set a precedent. If the appeal is denied, or no appeal is attempted, the Appeals
Court decision becomes final. In any case, the Supreme Court decision is the final word in any criminal case, barring a very unusual case of procedural error.

In some rare cases (mainly charges of treason and the like) are tried at the Appeals Courts as the first instance. In such a case, the Supreme Court is obligated to retry the case (or a part of it) on appeal.

It should be noted that courts do not make law in Finland. The only sense a court of law is bound by the decision of another court is by the general principle of equal treatment by the courts. In other words, two essentially identical cases should be decided the same way, and similar cases should get similar decisions. The significance of a Supreme Court ruling is therefore to set a standard against which future similar cases are measured.

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