Mr. Sami Sarvilinna works as a senior officer for legal affairs in the Finnish Ministry of Justice. He is in charge of the international affairs of the Finnish judicial administration and the official liaison between the Ministry and the Finnish Prosecution Service. He has worked also as an information officer in the Ministry and as a judge in the criminal division of the Helsinki District Court. Sami holds law degrees from the University of Helsinki [LLM] and the University of Oxford [MJur]. He has also a second degree from Helsinki, a MA in English, Economics and Computer Science. Sami is a licensed translator between Finnish and English [and vice versa] and the author of the chapter on Finland in Winterton and Moys’ Information Sources in Law [Bowker-Saur, London, 2nd ed, 1997].
Editor’s note: This article is an update to the Finnish Law on the Internet, (published March 1, 2001). There are numerous additions, changes for some Web site addresses, as well as some deletions. These additions and changes are indicated by (yellow background color) for easy identification.
The roots of the Finnish legal system lie in the times when the country belonged to the Kingdom of Sweden [from the 12th century to 1809]. These 700 years of common history form the basis of the similarities between the Finnish and Swedish societies, similarities that are evident also in their legal structures. These were retained even after Finland had been ceded to Russia, as the Swedish legislation in force at the time remained in force also during Finland’s 108 years as an autonomous Grand Duchy within the Empire of the Czar. As a matter of fact, some parts of the original Swedish legislation continue to be applied to this day, even though Finland has been an independent republic since 1917.
The autonomous status that Finland enjoyed during the 19th century allowed also for legislative self-determination. Hence, virtually nothing of the legal tradition of Russia remains, while Finland continues to display the characteristics of a continental legal tradition, with influences from Scandinavia and particularly from Germany.
One lasting effect of the Swedish times is the status of the Swedish language. For centuries, it was the language of the upper classes and the administration. Finnish, on the other hand, was taken into legislative use only in the early 20th century. Even today Finland is a bilingual country, with Finnish and Swedish enjoying the same status as official languages. All legislation and most other official publications are available in both of them. In addition, it should be noted here that the unilingually Swedish-speaking Åland Islands, which lie between Finland and Sweden, have a far-reaching autonomy, enshrined in an Act that is “constitutional by nature” even though not formally a part of the Constitution.
Finland has been a member of the United Nations since 1955, of the Council of Europe since 1989 and of the European Union since 1995.
For further information, the Ministry of Justice has produced a leaflet in English on The Legal System of Finland. The text of the leaflet is available on the Ministry’s website.
The new Constitution of Finland entered into force on 1 March 2000. It superseded the four constitutional acts deriving from the early times of Finnish independence, incorporating the most fundamental provisions from all of them. At the same time, many provisions were relegated to the ranks of regular parliamentary legislation. A thorough outlook, in English, into the background, enactment and contents of the Constitution is available at the Ministry of Justice website. Note also that the text of the Constitution is available on the website in the two official languages, Finnish and Swedish, and also in translation into English, German, French, Spanish and the Sámi language.
The text of Åland’s Autonomy Act is available in English at http://www.lagtinget.aland.fi/eng/act.html.
All Finnish legislation, from the Constitution to regular Acts of Parliament, Presidential Decrees, Government Decrees, Ministry Decrees and various other types of subordinate regulation, is published in print in the Suomen säädöskokoelma, i.e. the Statute Book of Finland.
FINLEX, the data bank for the dissemination of Finnish legislation and other legal information, has been in existence since the 1980’s. As technology has progressed, the data bank has undergone numerous reforms, the latest of which was implemented in the spring of 2001. This newest version of FINLEX is available on the Internet free of charge, with the URL http://www.finlex.fi. As always, most of the material on the website is available only in Finnish and Swedish.
The publishers of the data bank have announced that a new user interface in English would be opened in June 2001, but there appear to have been some delays. Evidently the English interface of FINLEX will be accessible in the near future under the URL http://www.finlex.net.
The legislative information within FINLEX is organised into the following databases, all of which can be accessed from its home page:
- A comprehensive reference database of Finnish legislation, with a list of changes made on any act or decree published in the Statute Book of Finland since the year 1734
- A document database with texts of all acts and decrees published in the Statute Book of Finland since 1987 and a compilation of acts and statutes published before 1987 (in Finnish and in Swedish)
- A document database with all acts and decrees published in the Statute Book of Finland since 1995, with the same lay&-out as in the printed version, in PDF.
- A database of translations of Finnish laws into other languages (English/German; this section contains some links to the translated texts of Finnish Acts of Parliament, but in the main it provides only reference information on the availability of a translated text. The translation will then have to be ordered by other means.)
- A database of international treaties (mostly in Finnish, from 1999 some also in other languages, in PDF)
- A database of all Sámi language acts and decrees published in the Statute Book of Finland
- A database of secondary legislation
A comprehensive two-volume edition of Finnish legislation, Suomen Laki I-II, i.e. the Laws of Finland, is published annually by a commercial enterprise, Kauppakaari Oyj. This work is available also as an online version, again both in Finnish and in Swedish. This version can be ordered, for a fee, at the publisher’s website.
Finland has a dual court system. There are the general courts, which are in charge of civil and criminal law, and the administrative courts, which, as their name indicates, deal with disputes between private persons and public authorities.
There are three tiers of general courts. The 66 District Courts operate as the courts of first instance, with jurisdiction over all civil and criminal cases within their territorially limited districts. In addition, there is the appellate level of six Courts of Appeal, and finally the Supreme Court in Helsinki, as the court of final appeal. The case law of the Supreme Court is available at the FINLEX data bank. In addition, the court has its own website.
Of the general courts in Finland, the Court of Appeal of Rovaniemi, in the North of Finland, has been something of a pioneer in its use of the WWW. The court’s web site is available also in English at http://www.rovahovi.oikeus.fi/eng/english.htm.
The administrative courts operate on two tiers. Firstly, there are eight regional Administrative Courts, which deal with complaints against administrative acts. The judgements of these courts can then be appealed in the Supreme Administrative Court in Helsinki. Again, the case law of the Supreme Administrative Court is available at FINLEX. Also this court has its own database.
The Finnish Parliament also operates a database containing an extensive amount of material in English. Parliamentary papers, such as bills, committee reports, session minutes etc. are, however, available only in one or both of the official languages.
The general website of the Finnish Government has recently undergone an overhaul, a part of which involved the launching of a dedicated English-language site at http://www.government.fi. This site offers an extensive view into how the executive branch of government operates in Finland. Of course, much of the content is political or otherwise topical, rather than legal, in nature, but the site does contain information e.g. the legislative programme of the government currently in charge. This policy paper and the others available at the site will in due course have an effect also on the contents of the law in Finland.
An advance notice should be given also of the plans to launch a general portal of the whole of the Finnish public administration. The portal, with the working title Suomi.fi, will eventually cover all aspects of legislation, government and judicial affairs in Finland, and naturally offer a full complement of links to all relevant sites, including the ones provided in this article. The portal is envisaged to be opened in the spring of 2002. Upon publication, it will subsume also the current Citizen’s Guide to Finland, a service originally provided by the Ministry of Finance in book form, but since the late 1990’s available only on the Internet (http://www.opas.vn.fi). Some of the information in the Guide is available also in English.
For legal researchers, FINLEX is still of the greatest interest. A mention should, however, be made of the recent launch of an Internet portal, www.oikeus.fi, for the whole of the judicial administration of Finland. The portal has been operational since the spring of 2001. It is envisaged as a one‑stop solution for those seeking information on the courts, prosecutors, bailiffs, legal aid bureaus and other public bodies dealing with the administration of justice in Finland. The portal initially contains information in Finnish and Swedish only, but the objective is to supplement it later also with English material.
Advonet, the website of the Finnish Bar Association, contains information in English on the regulations governing the practice of law in Finland, as well as on the activities of the Bar Association. There is also an extensive legal links selection and a listing of the Association’s member firms around the country.
The Association of Finnish Lawyers is the general professional organisation of most lawyers in Finland, not only those admitted to the Bar. The Association’s website contains information on the activities of the association and on lawyer’s employment situation in Finland. Again, there is a long list of links that may be of interest to the legal profession.
A mention is definitely in order here of the Finnish legal links site which in my opinion is well worth checking out even though it is in Finnish. This site contains a comprehensive set of links to all aspects of legislation, cases, literature, teaching and other matters with a legal theme in Finland. As the site is maintained by staff at the City Library of Hämeenlinna, I have only small doubts in including it in the “education” section of this article. As a matter of fact, the www.makupalat.fi (“Tasty Bits” in English) site is very useful for searches of Finnish websites in general as well, and not only of legal ones. Three universities in Finland have full-scale faculties of law. These are the University of Helsinki, the University of Turku and the University of Lapland.
In addition, there is a number of institutes of higher education that offer a narrower choice of law-related subjects. These include the Department of Law, the Institute of Maritime and Commercial Law and the Institute of Human Rights at Åbo Akademi University, the Department of Law at the Swedish School of Economics and Business Administration, the Department of Public Law at the University of Joensuu, the Department of Public Law at the University of Tampere, and the Departments of Business Law and Public Law at the University of Vaasa (www.uwasa.fi/index-en.html).
Kauppakaari is the leading publisher of professional literature in Finland. Other notable legal publishers include WSLT, the legal publications subsidiary of WSOY, one of Finland’s largest general publishing houses, and Edita, which succeeded the government publishing agency upon its privatisation.
The cases taken into the yearbook of the Supreme Court are cited by indicating the abbreviated name of the Court, the year when the ruling was handed down and the number of the case, e.g. KKO:2001:1. Until 1986, the cases were divided into two series; the distinction was made by indicating the series in between the year and the case number, e.g. KKO:1986-I-1 or KKO:1986-II-1.
The citation system used in the Supreme Administrative Court is more complicated, as there are several number series for the various types of case dealt with by the court.. The general system of citation indicates merely the date when the ruling was handed down and the number of the case, e.g. 05.01.2001/5. The cases taken into the yearbook are sometimes cited also by using the Supreme Court method, e.g. KHO:1993-B-505.
The cases of the lower courts are normally not cited all that much. If a citation is needed, the date and number of the case can be provided. In Finland, cases are not cited by using a popular name.
The Constitution of Finland does have a number in the Statute Book of Finland (731/1999). This number, however, is hardly ever used; instead, the Constitution, as a unique instrument, is referred to by name only.
All other statutes, be they Acts of Parliament, Presidential Decrees, Government Decrees, Ministry Decrees or other lower-level norms, are cited by indicating their number in the Statute Book, e.g. 689/1997 (this statute, by the way, is the Criminal Procedure Act). The Suomen Laki I-II, a commercial publication of Finnish statutes, has its own system of signums: In that work, for instance, the Criminal Procedure Act is referred to as Pr 102.
Finnish legal periodicals provide their own recommendations for citation. In general, it can be noted that the most common citation format is to provide the year of publication of the article, plus the relevant page numbers (In most periodicals, the pages are numbered consecutively through an entire year of publication.)