This section provides you with information on the organisation of ordinary courts in Finland.
One can divide the courts of law in Finland into general courts for civil and criminal matters, administrative courts for administrative adjudication and special courts.
The term ‘general courts’ refers to courts whose jurisdiction is general. In other words, they handle legal disputes that have not been made the responsibility of some other court of law. General courts are:
General administrative courts are the administrative courts (hallinto-oikeus/förvaltningsdomstol, 8). The highest administrative court is the Supreme Administrative Court (Korkein hallinto-oikeus/Högsta förvaltningsdomstolen).
Local or district courts function as general courts of first instance. They handle civil and criminal cases and matters related to liens (property taxes) and the ownership of real estate (mortgages and registration of titles to property). At the moment there are 51 such courts in Finland. They range in size considerably. The largest have about 80 judges and a total staff of around 250 persons, including office secretaries, bailiffs and young lawyers undergoing court training. The smallest courts have two permanent judges and about ten other civil servants.
The provisions governing the operations and administration of these courts can be found in the District Courts Act and accompanying decree, relevant standing orders, and the more specific rules and instructions arising from the statute. According to the law, the leading judge in a court of first instance is also the administrative head of that office.
A district court also has lay members who participate primarily in criminal proceedings. The lay members are chosen by municipal councils. The Ministry of Justice confirms the number of lay members to be chosen by the municipalities. Their remuneration is paid out of state funds.
In a district court, a civil case is divided into two stages: a preliminary preparation and a main hearing. The preliminary preparation commences with the written submissions of the parties. A number of cases – those relating to debt collection – are already resolved during this phase. The preparation proceeds orally, with one judge presiding at the meeting.
If the case cannot be resolved at this stage, a separate main hearing is scheduled. Here the composition of the district court is either one judge or three judges, except in family law cases, where the court is composed of a single judge only. The proceedings are as continuous as possible.
In criminal cases, the composition of the district court varies depending on the offence in question. Cases of petty infractions are heard by one judge, and more serious offences are heard by a panel of one judge and three lay members.
Criminal procedure follows the same principles as in civil cases. The court may ask the accused to make a plea before the main hearing. The procedure is oral and the judgement is based on the factual circumstances that the parties have personally brought to the knowledge of the court. All evidence is received in the main hearing. Again, the proceedings are as continuous as possible. The composition of the court cannot change while the main hearing is in progress.
If the court does not reach a consensus on the judgement, a vote is taken. Each member of the panel has an individual vote. Where there is a tie in a civil case, the judge voices his final opinion; in a criminal case, the more lenient alternative prevails.
The judgement of a district court indicates how the case has been resolved and contains a statement of reasons. In most cases, the judgement is handed down to the parties immediately after the conclusion of the main hearing. In extensive or otherwise complicated cases, the judgement may, however, be delayed by a maximum of two weeks and handed down in writing by the court registry.
Finland has six courts of appeal. As superior courts, these handle appeals and petitions against the rulings of the district courts. In certain cases, courts of appeal also act as courts of first instance: e.g. for the impeachment of a lower court judge or civil servants of high standing.
The courts of appeal are also responsible for supervising the application of the law in district courts, and for certain matters pertaining to judicial administration. One administrative matter in particular requires issuing an opinion to the judicial selection committee on applicants applying for the office of judge of a district court or court of appeal. The statement of opinion is made by the committee of the court of appeal charged with this responsibility. The president (chief justice) of the court of appeal is responsible for its operations and efficiency.
The court of appeal is divided into divisions headed by a senior judge working together with other justices. Matters are normally handled by a section of the court of appeal consisting of three judges.
Until April 1998, proceedings in the Court of Appeal were primarily in written form. In such proceedings, cases are handled and resolved in response to a presentation based on written evidence submitted to the court. The reform of the legal proceedings of courts of appeal has increased the number of oral hearings. Assessors and senior secretaries of the court now perform the function of presenting official (referendary).
The Supreme Court is the highest appellate level. Like the court of appeal, the Supreme Court is divided into sections which, to be legally competent, consist of five members.
To refer a case to the Supreme Court, the interested or involved party must apply for leave to appeal against a judgement of a court. On receipt of this petition, the Supreme Court examines whether or not it can grant leave to appeal in this particular case. The matter is considered by a two or three-person panel. Leave to appeal may be granted only on grounds stipulated by law.
Since 1980, the Supreme Court has become a precedent-setting institution. To all intents and purposes, a case that the Supreme Court has settled sets a legal norm that other courts of law must follow in similar cases. No leave to appeal is required in cases where a court of appeal has functioned as court of first instance.
The operations of the Supreme Court are presided over by its president. Members of the Supreme Court are called justices of the Supreme Court. The chief secretary, assistant chief secretaries, junior or senior judicial secretaries may all act as presenting officials (referendary).
In addition to handling statutory matters, the Supreme Court appoints judges to temporary positions for a year or longer. The Supreme Court also comments on proposed legislation and clemency petitions sent to the President of Finland.
The procedure in the Supreme Court is usually written. Oral hearings can, however, be heard if this is considered necessary.
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The Judicial Website of Finnish Courts contains information on the judicial system of Finland, It is a one-stop portal for those seeking information on the courts, prosecutors, bailiffs, legal aid bureaus and other public bodies dealing with the administration of justice in Finland.
It includes, for example, the latest case law from the courts of appeal and administrative courts
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