Features – An Overview of Estonian Law and Web Resources

Kart Miil is a reference librarian at the Tartu University Library.

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1. Current Developments of Estonian Law

This article will highlight the Estonian state order, legal system, court system with links on the related sites and legal acts in English. See full text written by lawyers of “Law Office of Lepik and Luha aar.”

State Order

Grounds of Estonian state order have been set out in the Constitution of the Estonian Republic, approved at the referendum held on June 28, 1992, and enforced on July 3, 1992.

The legislative power is vested in the Parliament of the Republic – Riigikogu, elected for 4 years. The Parliament passes laws, decisions and state budget, elects the President of the Republic, authorizes a candidate for the prime minister to form the government etc.

The President of the Republic is the head of state and the supreme commander of Estonian defense forces. Duties of the President include declaration of the regular sessions of the Riigikogu, convoking and opening the first session of the Parliament, appointing the government authorized by the Parliament. The President also approves laws adopted by the Parliament, he may refuse the approval and insist on amendment of enactment. Failure to alter the act may give rise to application to the Supreme Court for declaring the measure unconstitutional.

The executive power rests with the Government of the Republic, consisting of the Prime Minister and up to 15 ministers. The Government submits drafts of laws and a state budget to the Parliament, issues decrees and regulations.

The judicial power is exercised by the courts.

Legal System

Estonian legal system is currently going through a transition from the Soviet law. Due to the historical background the legal development is mainly influenced by the German legal tradition. Such an influence is particularly clear in relation to the new principles of civil law.

In 1992 a decision was made for adoption of a new Civil Code, which would abolish the ESSR Civil Code adopted in 1964. The Code will consist of:

  1. General Principles of the Civil Code (passed in June 1994 and entered into force on September 1, 1994).

  2. Property Act (passed in June 1993 and entered into force on December 1, 1993).

  3. Family Act (passed in October 1994, entered into force on January 1, 1995).

  4. Inheritance Act (passed in May 1996, entered into force on January 1, 1997).

  5. Law of Obligations – a draft of the law is currently under construction and the Law may be passed during 2000.

In the field of commercial law a new Commercial Code has been passed and in effect since September 1, 1995.

Court System

Estonian court system can be divided into three levels:

  1. The first instance – respective town, county and administrative courts. Town courts and county courts examine civil, criminal and administrative cases. Claims are examined by a single judge or by one judge and two assessors.

  2. The second instance – three district courts acting as courts of appeal and reviewing the decisions of the first instance. District courts are divided into three colleges handling civil, criminal and administrative matters respectively. In the second instance appeals are tried by three professional judges.

  3. The Supreme Court deliberating the applications for the cassation, revision and oversight proceedings subjected to it. The Supreme Court consists of the general meeting, civil, criminal and administrative colleges and a college for the constitutional For examining a matter in the Supreme Court the leave for appeal is required from the Permissory Board established in the Supreme Court.


Provisions governing arbitration proceedings are based on the Act on the Arbitration Court of the Estonian Chamber of Commerce and Industry passed on August 18, 1991. The Arbitration Court examines cases based on the application of claim in case:

  • the parties have agreed to settlement of the dispute in the Arbitration Court,
  • the claimant has submitted the claim to the Arbitration Court and the defendant has performed an action that can be construed as an agreement to settle the matter under the jurisdiction of the Arbitration Court.
  • International agreements foresee the settlement of certain disputes in the Arbitration Court.

The procedural rules concerning the arbitration proceedings are established by the Rules of the Arbitration Court of the Estonian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Decisions of the Arbitration Court are final and are not subject to appellation proceedings.

Commercial Law

Prior to September 1, 1995 provisions of the Estonian commercial law were embraced mainly in governmental decrees. The new Commercial Code (Äriseadustik) passed by the Riigikogu on February 15, 1995 (came into force on September 1, 1995) considerably amended those principles. In addition to the Code, specific areas of business activity are governed by special norms provided in the Associations Act, Accounting Act, Act on Credit Banks, Insurance Act, Securities Market Act etc.

Above all, the Code provides a definition for the trader and different types of commercial undertakings. A trader can be either a natural person or commercial undertaking. There are 5 types of commercial undertakings – general partnerships (täisühing), limited partnerships (usaldusühing), limited liability companies (osaühing), joint-stock companies (aktsiaselts), and commercial co-operatives (tulundusühistu). Provisions governing commercial co-operatives are included in the Associations Act.

A trader operates through an enterprise, which includes objects, rights and duties pertaining to the trader. In case ownership or possession of the enterprise is transferred, the liabilities of the enterprise are also transferred.

Commercial Register

Before the enforcement of the Code, all relevant information concerning commercial undertakings was entered into the Company Register (Ettevõtteregister), whereas after September 1, 1995, registration is carried out through the Commercial Register (Äriregister). By September 1, 1997, all companies registered in the Company Register had to be re-registered, otherwise liquidation proceedings would be initiated.

Commercial Registers are established in town courts or county courts and are organizationally attached to the Real Estate Registers. A register is kept in Estonian and all documents in other languages are to be submitted with a translation verified by the notary public.

Bankruptcy Law

Estonian bankruptcy law is mainly governed by the Bankruptcy Act adopted on June 10, 1992 (entered into force on September 1, 1992). In December, 1996 the Bankruptcy Act was amended to a considerable extent and said amendments have been in force since February 1, 1997.

Bankruptcy is defined as the insolvency of a debtor declared by a court order. A debtor is considered insolvent if he is unable to satisfy the claims of creditors, and due to the financial situation of the debtor such inability is not temporary.

Competition Law

The new grounds of the Estonian competition law have been set out in the Competition Act passed on March 11, 1998 (entered into force on October 01, 1998). The purpose of the Act is to safeguard free competition based on the interests of free enterprise within the territory of Estonia. The Competition Act is also applicable in case the violation of competition takes place outside the Estonian territory, but competition is violated within the territory of Estonia. According to the Competition Act, violations of competition freedom may eventuate in unfair competition or in restriction of competition. A restriction of competition freedom or establishment of competition restrictions by the decisions or acts of an executive state authority and local government, which breach the Competition Act or any other legislative act, are also regarded as a violation of competition freedom.

Contract Law

At the time being, Estonian contract law is governed by the Third Part of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic Civil Code, enacted in 1964. Of course, by the present moment, said provisions have gone through considerable amendment.

A draft for the new Law of Obligations is under elaboration, and, most likely, the new Law of Obligations will be enacted during the year 2000. Therefore, besides a brief discussion on the principles of the ESSR Civil Code, main attention will be paid to the general part of the Law of Obligations. Although it is unlikely that those general principles will be amended during the final stages of legislative process, the fact that the following will be based on the draft may not be overlooked.

Foundation of Obligation Relationship

The Law of Obligations will constitute six grounds for formation of obligations:

  1. Contracts,
  2. Unlawful infliction of damage,
  3. Unjust enrichment,
  4. Conduct of one’s business without authority,
  5. Public promise of reward,
  6. Other grounds constituted by the law.

According to the ESSR Civil Code, a contract was considered concluded when the parties had reached an agreement in all essential conditions of the contract. According to the Law of Obligations, a contract is concluded by offer and acceptance or otherwise making it reasonably clear that the parties have concluded an agreement. The Law of Obligations establishes more precise requirements for offer and acceptance than the ESSR Civil Code.

Insurance Law

The most important enactment governing the Estonian insurance law is the Insurance Act passed on November 5, 1992. The Insurance Act has been amended three times and the most extensive amendments were made with the adoption of the Commercial Code in 1995.

The Insurance Act sets forth general principles of insurance activities, requirements for insurance contracts, foundation of insurance companies, supervision of insurance activities, etc.

An insurance agency in Estonia may operate only in the field of insurance. In certain cases, upon consent of the insurance inspectorate, an insurance agency may also operate in a field directly related to the insurance activities. The Insurance Act does not permit handling of both life and damage insurance at the same time. The business name of an insurance company shall include the word “kindlustus”.

Intellectual Property

A reform in the field of the intellectual property law began in 1991 with the foundation of the State Patent Office, established for the purpose of protection of intellectual property in the Republic of Estonia. The contemporary Estonian industrial property legislation includes the Trademark Act (passed on August 27, 1992), Copyright Act (passed on November 11, 1992), Patent Act, and Utility Models Act (both passed on March 16, 1994), Protection of Geographical Indications Act( passed on December 15,1999).

Besides the implemented national legislation, Estonia has joined several international treaties, including the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, Convention Establishing the World Intellectual Property Organization, Paris Convention for the Protection of Intellectual Property, and the Patent Cooperation Treaty of 1970.

Labour Law

The main principles of the Estonian labour law are set out in the Employment Contracts Act adopted on April 15, 1992 (entered into force on July 1, 1992). Besides the aforesaid act, labour relations are governed by a vast number of other acts – the Wages Act, the Collective Agreements Act the Working Hours and Rest Time Act, the Holidays Act, Occupational Health and Safety Act, Collective Labour Dispute Resolution Act, Individual Labour Dispute Resolution Act etc.

Maritime Law

The main source of the Estonian maritime law are the Commercial Shipping Code (entered into force on March 1, 1992), Ship Property Act (entered into force on March 11, 1998), Harbour Act ( entered into force on October 22, 1997), Flying Flag and Ship Register Act (entered into force on February 11, 1998), Navigation Safety Act (December 17, 1997).

Property Law

Estonian property law is based on the Property Act adopted in June 1993 (entered into force on December 1, 1993). The objective of the Act is to set forth property rights, determine their essence, and govern the formation and termination of property rights.

Property rights can be divided into ownership and limited property rights (right of lien, servitudes, real encumbrances, building titles and pre-emption rights). Pursuant to the law, a thing is a tangible object, an immovable thing is land and essential parts attached to it (buildings permanently affixed to the land, growing forest, other crops or unharvested grain, but also property rights connected with the lot). All things that are not immovables are movable things.


The contemporary law of securities is mainly influenced by practices and custom developed by participants in the stock market, rather than by public legislation. The Securities Market Act was passed in 1993. Said Act sets forth general principles of the Estonian stock market, focusing, however, mainly on the primary market. In 1996, the Government passed the Decree on Registration and Declaration of Public Issue of Securities.

There are no laws passed in relation to the secondary market of securities. Transactions on the Stock Exchange and the Central Depository of Securities are governed by the internal procedure rules established by the Stock Exchange and the Central Depository.

Tax Law

The foundation for a newly reformed Estonian tax law was laid in 1993, when the revised Value Added Tax Act, Land Tax Act and the Taxation Act were passed. Besides the obligations and rights of a taxpayer, and liability for breach of tax laws, the Taxation Act provides a comprehensive list of national taxes which include:

  1. excises (respective acts have established excises on motor fuel and oil, alcohol, tobacco, motor vehicles and packaging);

  2. income tax (the current Income Tax Act was passed on December 15, 1999);

  3. gambling tax (the Gambling Tax Act was passed on June 14, 1995);

  4. gift and inheritance tax (a concurrent Estonian Tax Law has not established taxation of gifts and property obtained through inheritance);

  5. value added tax (the Value Added Tax Act, passed on August 25, 1993);

  6. land tax (the Land Tax Act, passed on May 6, 1993);

  7. social security tax (the Social Security Tax Act entered into force on January 1, 1991, but has been amended to a considerable extent since said date);

  8. customs tax.

2. Web Resources of Estonian Law

Estonian Government Information

Estonian State Web Center (In English, Estonian and Russian)
President, Parliament, Government, Ministries
Commercial Register, Register of Associations and Foundations, Register of Commercial Pledges, Ship Register
company types, legal advise, legal acts, regulations, statistics.

Parliament of Estonia, Legislative procedure, Weekly record

Draft laws with search engine (in Estonian)

Draft laws currently in process (in Estonian)

Full Text Law Databases

Estonian Translation and Legislative Support Centre
This is a State Agency database providing translation of Estonian legislation into English; translation of EC legislation into Estonian; gives periodically updated translations of consolidated texts with validation date. Search engine, free access, registration is needed.
State Gazette (Riigi Teataja) (in Estonian)
Laws, regulations, Supreme Court decisions, treaties
Estlex law database (in Estonian)
In Russian coming soon!
Institute of Baltic Studies Law Database (in Estonian)
Estonian legislation in force, consolidated texts.

Legal Acts of Tallinn City Council (in Estonian)

Legal Acts of Tartu City Council and City Government (in Estonian)

Draft Laws (in Estonian)


Supreme Court, Court Decisions (in Estonian), Constitutional Decisions Database in English

Tartu District Court Decisions DAtabase (in Estonian)

Arbitration Court, Rules of Arbitration Court, Law of the Arbitration Court

Legal Education

University of Tartu Law Faculty

The Institut of Law

Concordia International University Estonia

Estonian Law Center
Provides continuing education for lawyers

Estonian Business School

The Estonian Institute of Humanities

University Nord

Library Databases

Estonian Research Libraries’ Catalog

National Library

Tartu University Library

Estonian Law Center Library Online Catalog

Concordia International University Library Online Catalog

Texts, Dictionaries and Journals in Internet

Selected Lexicon of American-Estonian Legal Terminology

Juridica (Law journal)
Full text 1993 – (in Estonian). Abstracts in English.
Juridica International (Law journal in English)
1996-1998 (full text)

Law Textbooks (in Estonian)

Journal of Estonian Parliament (in Estonian)
Abstracts in English
Oigus Teada (in Estonian)
Lawyers education, news.

Administrative Documents (in Estonian)

Estonia and EU

Estonia and EU Documents (ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Estonia And EU Documents (Tartu University Library)

EU Information in Estonia


Database of Nongovernmental Organizations

Jaan Tonisson Institute
NGO-s, Estonia and Human Rights, Integration of Non-Estonians, Economics and Law.
Estonian Taxpayer’s Association
Article about conceptual bases of new Estonian Income Tax Act
Public Management Profiles
Article about Estonian state and government in English.

Integration in Estonian Society

Law Firms (with information and text in English)

Law Office of Lepik & Luhaa”a”r

AAA Legal Services
Intellectual Property

Baltic Commercial Law Office

Teder & Rask

Price Waterhouse Coopers

Pekka Pinomaa Attorneys at Law

Consulting of Merchant Marine


Patent and Trademark Agency

Lawyer’s Office Markus

Sorainen Law Offices

English Language Internet Sites on Estonia

Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
A lot of government and business related information, education, research, science, news, etc.
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