Norwegian courts and the administration of justice

Legislation and administration of justice (judicature) have long traditions in Norway. Long before the country was unified by Harald Finehair at the end of the 9th century, a systematic jurisprudence was practised at the alltings or folk-moots, regional meetings to settle disputes and make law. There is a famous quotation from the 12th-century law-book of the Frostating jurisdiction (Trøndelag): “By law shall the land be built and not by lawlessness laid waste”.

By Lars Winsvold Updated by BÃ¥rd Thorsen

In the 1270s King Magnus V “Lawmender” collated four such regional laws into a national code that remained officially in force for 400 years. Not until 1687, when the country was a province of Denmark, did Norway see a new codification in Christian V’s Norwegian Law. The Norwegian Constitution was adopted after the dissolution of the union with Denmark in 1814, and contained important principles of governance and jurisprudence. Inspired by contemporary European political thought and the constitutions of countries like the United Kingdom, the USA and France, the Constituent Assembly laid down principles of popular sovereignty, the separation of powers between the executive (the King), the legislature (the Storting) and the judiciary, and the individual civil and political rights. These have served as the basis for the subsequent development of Norwegian law.

Legislation and procedure

Criminal procedure is governed by an Act of 1981, replacing the act of the same name of 1887. The older law contained the underpinnings of today’s system, including the jury system in the high courts. Fundamental changes to appeals procedure were enacted in 1995. The current civil penal code is from 1902, replacing that of 1842. A revision of parts of the code is under consideration.

Civil judicature took its present form with the Civil Procedure Acts of 1915. They have been subject to continuous amendment, inter alia by a new Enforcement Act of 1992, but by and large civil procedure is still governed by the same principles. Legislation in various areas of private and public law has developed gradually, as more and more fields are codified by statute. In the main, our legislation is built on the same foundations as that of other Nordic countries. A large number of laws have been added in this century, partly to replace statutes dating all the way back to Christian V’s Norwegian Law of 1687. A central feature of our legal system is that most areas are governed by act of parliament, in contradistinction to Anglo-American law, which to a far greater extent rests on case law. However, a number of rules of Norwegian law are also based on case law. Moreover, the 1990s have seen a certain adaptation to the law of the European Union, in that Norway is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA).

The courts

The Norwegian courts are organised in three instances for criminal cases and four for civil suits. In many situations the court of first instance for civil cases is the Conciliation court (forliksråd), which is both a mediating body and a court. Each municipality has its conciliation court, which is made up of laymen.

The district courts, which might also be called rural and urban municipal courts, (herreds- og byrett) hear both civil and criminal cases. They are the first instance in criminal cases and in civil cases which do not need to be dealt with in the conciliation court. Civil cases also include probate, enforcement of claims and so on. Norway is currently (1999) divided into 87 jurisdictions, of which Oslo is the largest, being staffed by 60 judges and about 15 assistant judges. Most of the district courts, however, are small, with only one or two full-time professional judges and one or more assistant judges.

The office of the district magistrate (sorenskriverembet), the usual designation for most of the smaller district courts, has a long tradition and in 1991 celebrated its 400th anniversary. Most of the big towns have tribunals for execution, that is, enforcement of claims (namsrett), and also for bankruptcy and probate (skifterett). In Bergen, Stavanger and Trondheim, however, these functions are discharged by the office of the city magistrate (byfogdembete), while Oslo has tribunals for probate and bankruptcy cases (Oslo skifterett), execution cases (Oslo byfogdembete) and property registration (Oslo byskriverembete).

The next instance is the High Courts or Courts of Appeal (lagmannsrett). Their function is mostly to hear interlocutory and other appeals against the judgements of the district courts in both civil and criminal cases. Norway is divided into six such appellate jurisdictions, mostly named after the ancient regional moots – Borgarting, Eidsivating, Agder, Gulating, Frostating and Hålogaland. They are staffed by between ten and forty appellate judges and presiding judges. Each court is led by a chief court of appeals judge (førstelagmann). The final instance is the Supreme Court (Høyesterett), which sits in Oslo and consists of 18 judges under the presidency of the Chief Justice (Høyesterettsjustitarius). The Appeals Committee of the Supreme Court (Høyesteretts kjæremålsutvalg) is an independent part of the Supreme Court; among other things it decides whether cases shall be heard before the Supreme Court and itself decides interlocutory appeals related to procedural issues and certain other decisions of lower courts.

The independence of the courts

One of the central principles of judicature is the independence of the courts. They are the third branch of government besides the legislature and the executive. The courts are set to judge in accordance with current law, and must therefore keep within the Acts passed by the Storting and the regulations issued pursuant to these (statutory instruments). Neither the Storting nor the Government, however, may intervene in the courts’ consideration of a particular case. Moreover, the courts may strike down acts of parliament if they find them to be unconstitutional, for example violating the principle that laws may not take retroactive effect. In a few cases the Supreme Court has in fact struck down laws as being unconstitutional, and in others it has interpreted them narrowly so as to avoid conflict with the Constitution.

The courts may also review the validity of decisions made by central and local government authorities. In principle, however, decisions of the administration based on free discretion are not overridden, unless it can be shown that the procedure was faulty, that the decision was based on incorrect information or jurisdiction was abused.

Judges are appointed by the King in Council, after nomination by the Ministry of Justice and recommendation from a consultative body. They cannot, however, be removed from office except by a court judgement. The administration of the courts pertains to the Ministry of Justice, which has final responsibility for budget, staffing, organisational development and other purely administrative matters. No courts have administrative authority over any lower courts. In 1996 a broad-based commission was appointed to consider the central administrative management of the courts, on the basis of the judicial independence enshrined in the Constitution. The commission’s report was submitted in 1999, published as NOU 1999:19. The commission was split regarding proposals for a new administrative system, the majority advocating a separate Courts Administration under a board partly elected by the Storting and partly appointed by the Government, and that the administration itself be taken away from the Ministry of Justice. A minority report, on the other hand, advocated the creation of a separate external council subordinate to the Ministry. The commission also dealt with issues of the appointment of judges and a system for disciplinary measures.

Tribunals (courts of particular jurisdiction)

It is characteristic of all of the courts that they consider all kinds of cases. The Norwegian Supreme Court and the lower courts, all the way down to the smallest district magistrate offices, adjudicate both criminal and civil cases, everything from child custody to multi-million-kroner suits. There are, therefore, few examples of tribunals in Norway. Among those that do exist are the land courts (jordskifterett), which among other things decides redistribution of agricultural land and boundary disputes. Another tribunal is the Labour Court (arbeidsrett), which judges in questions of wage agreements and employer-employee issues. The Social Security Appeal Tribunal (trygderett) is not strictly speaking a court, but an administrative tribunal that decides appeals under the National Insurance Act. The same goes for the county social welfare boards (fylkesnemnd for sosiale saker), which among other things decide child custody disputes. These boards are chaired by a jurist, who decides cases in consultation with professionals and laypeople. Decisions made by these bodies can be appealed to the ordinary courts.

Criminal cases

After a crime has been fully investigated, the prosecution authority considers what to do next. Instead of bringing a case before the court, for example, in many cases the prosecution authority may decide to issue a penalty notice (forelegg), that is, a fine, which the accused can either accept, or by refusing cause the case to go before the courts. For trivial offences a nolle prosequi (påtaleunnlatelse) may be issued, a decision not to press charges. In recent years a referral for mediation in a conflict resolution board (konfliktråd) has been much used in less serious cases, particularly those involving young offenders.

The prosecution authority

In Norway the prosecution authority is organised in three levels, with the Director General of Public Prosecutions (Riksadvokat) as the highest level. Subordinate to the Director General are the public prosecutors (statsadvokat), and under these again are the police prosecutors. In principle, the Director General of Public Prosecutions answers to the King (in Council) and cannot be directed by the Ministry of Justice in prosecution questions, but in practice the prosecution authority operates independently. The office of the Director General of Public Prosecutions supervises ten public prosecution districts, each led by a chief public prosecutor. In addition comes ØKOKRIM, the National Authority for Investigation and Prosecution of Economic and Environmental Crime in Norway. The lowest level of the public prosecution service is the district commissioners of police (politimester), some of whose subordinates (police solicitors) are competent to prosecute. The district commissioners are, therefore, both the leaders of the local police service and part of the public prosecution authority. The police officers with prosecution authority are the deputy district commissioners (politiinspektør), the assistant district commissioners (politiadjutant), and the superintendents (politifullmektig). For a number of crimes it is the police prosecution service that both prepares the bill of indictment for the courts and pleads the prosecution case; in more serious cases the bill of indictment is generally prepared by the public prosecutors or the Director General of Public Prosecutions. A 1993 reform greatly extended the powers of the police prosecutors to bring criminal charges.

The police and sheriff service

Norway is divided into 54 police districts, of which Oslo is the biggest. In addition, special bodies at national level have been established in order to discharge special functions, including the National Bureau of Crime Investigation (Kriminalpolitisentralen), the Mobile Police (Utrykningspolitiet), the Police Data Processing Service, the State Agency for the Recovery of Fines, Damages and Costs, the Police Security Service and the Frontier Commissioner. Most of the police districts include both urban and rural areas. The Norwegian police have a decentralised structure with an emphasis on proximity to the public, and the police districts are subdivided into a relatively large number of local units. Of these sub-units the most important are the sheriffs’ offices (lensmannskontor). The 361 sheriff’s offices (in 1999) have traditionally been responsible for policing the rural areas. In addition to their police functions the sheriffs have a number of civil duties such as execution in cases of claims enforcement. The police and sheriffs’ service has recently undergone reorganisation, among other things resulting in the vesting of integrated overall authority for the police service in the district commissioners – that is, including authority over the sheriffs, who were formally subordinate to the county governors (fylkesmenn).

As of 2000, about 10,700 individuals were employed in the police and sheriffs’ service, of whom c. 120 belong to the senior prosecution service in the police. Thirty percent of police personnel are women.

In 1999 the police received about 315,000 complaints of crime and something over 112,500 complaints of misdemeanours. Fifty-four percent of the cases concerned property crimes, five percent volence, nine percent drugs and seven per cent vandalism. In 1998 the police solved forty per cent of all kinds of crime whose investigation was completed.

For complaints against police officers, a separate body has been established, led by judges: the Special Investigative Body, SEFO.

Criminal procedure in the courts

Subsequent to the major legal reform of 1995, all criminal cases are to commence in the district court. Before that, the most serious criminal cases (murder, rape and major drugs offences) were brought straight to a jury trial in the High Court, with limited opportunities for appeal; after the reform, the question of guilt in any kind of case can be appealed to the High Court.

Criminal cases are heard in the district court by a professional judge and two lay assessors as a panel (meddomsrett). In special cases the court can sit with two professional judges and three lay assessors (forsterket rett). The members of the court first decide on the guilt of the accused, with one vote each, and thereafter fix the sentence. The lay assessors are laymen; it is fundamental principle in Norway, as in many other countries, that ordinary citizens should participate in the adjudication of criminal cases. Courts select a number of men and women to hear a given case from a larger panel, appointed by the municipal councils every fourth year. Those selected are obliged to serve at the court unless they have valid excuses. For certain kinds of case, for example financial matters, special panels of expert assessors are assembled.

Court proceedings are to be oral, and as a rule both the hearings and the rendition of judgement are public. During the main hearing the accused normally enjoys the right to be assisted by defence counsel at public expense. There are certain exceptions to this, for instance driving under the influence and penalty-notice cases. Judgement shall be based exclusively on the evidence submitted during the trial.

Appeals to the High Court

Judgements rendered by the district courts may be appealed to the High Court, either a “full appeal” on the question of guilt, or a “limited appeal” against the sentencing, the application of the law or procedural errors.

When the question of guilt is appealed, the High Court retries the case. In cases with a penal framework (longest possible prison sentence for the offence) of more than six years, the question of guilt is determined by a jury (lagretten or jury) consisting of ten lay jurors. As far as possible, the jury should have as even a representation of the sexes as possible after the parties have exercised their right to discard the superfluous individuals on the panel of (usually) 14 initially selected. A conviction requires a majority of seven of the ten jurors, whose votes are secret. The sentence is then fixed by the three professional judges in concert with four of the jurors, including the chairman.

When the appeal is in a case with a penal framework of less than six years, the court sits as a panel (meddomsrett) of three professional judges and four lay assessors, who have equal votes. Conviction here requires a majority of five of the seven members of the panel.

Appeals against sentencing and other limited appeals are generally decided in writing by three professional judges. If the appeal is against sentencing in cases with a penal framework of more than six years, the case is heard by a panel as above.

Review of appeals – procedure for interlocutory appeals

With the exception of appeals in cases carrying a sentence of six years, the High Court can refuse to hear appeal cases when it is unanimously found in a preliminary review that the appeal has no chance. Such preliminary review is made by three professional judges. Cases in which the sentence is merely a fine or confiscation can only be appealed in special circumstances and with the consent of the High Court. There are also other review rules when the prosecution is making the appeal. The High Court also decides interlocutory appeals (kjæremål), that is, appeals against the decisions of the district courts (or courts of examining and summary jurisdiction) regarding procedure, also remand rulings and so on. These are heard by three professional judges. Certain decisions may in accordance with specific rules be subject to interlocutory appeal to the next instance, the Appeals Committee of the Supreme Court.

Appeals to the Supreme Court

Criminal convictions handed down by the High Court can be appealed to the Supreme Court as regards sentencing, alleged procedural errors or application of the law. The Supreme Court is not empowered to undertake a new examination of the evidence for the accused’s guilt. Appeal procedure in the Supreme Court does not follow the principle of first-hand presentation of evidence. Testimony heard in lower courts is presented in writing as required. The Appeals Committee of the Supreme Court can refuse to admit a case to the Supreme Court if it unanimously finds that the appeal has no chance, if the appeal is in the convicted person’s disfavour, if the question is of minor importance or there is no reason to have it reviewed by the Supreme Court.

Adjudication in the Court of Examining and Summary Jurisdiction

Many criminal cases are heard in the Court of Examining and Summary Jurisdiction (forhørsrett). This is another name for the district court when it hears cases of remand, arrest and so forth, and also in so-called confession cases. Where the accused has confessed, the case can often – with his or her consent – be adjudicated in the Court of Examining and Summary Jurisdiction, which is quicker and simpler than normal criminal procedure. The court then sits with one judge. His or her task is mostly to read the documents in the case, hear the accused’s statement, and fix a sentence. The accused has the right to free legal aid (public defender) only if there is a likelihood of a prison sentence over six months. The proceedings of the Court of Examining and Summary Jurisdiction are not made public. Its criminal convictions may be appealed to the High Court.

Sentences and other penalties

The maximum sentence that can be imposed in Norway is 21 years. The convicted person is normally released on parole after two-thirds of the sentence has been served. A suspended (betinget) sentence is imposed in many cases, particularly for young first-time offenders. If given a suspended sentence, the convicted person does not go to prison unless he or she re-offends in the probationary period, generally two years. Specific conditions may also be imposed, for example, supervision in the probationary period or treatment for substance abuse. The mildest penal alternative – apart from fines – is a conditional discharge, which means that no sentence is imposed provided that the accused maintains good behaviour in a probationary period.

In addition to the traditional forms of penalty, a few years ago community service (samfunnstjeneste) was introduced as an independent alternative. This means that the offender must pay his or her debt to society through useful work.

In 1997 community service was imposed in 737 cases, (wholly or partly) non-suspended prison sentences in 8,651 cases and suspended sentences in 7,557 cases. In the same year, the prosecution authority issued about 195,700 penalty notices (fines), including tickets (forenklet forelegg) for traffic offences and so on.

In addition to such penalties, courts may also order confiscation of unlawful gains and compensation to victims.

If the criminal act was committed in a state of insanity, or by a person of deficient mental development or permanently impaired mental capacity, the offender cannot be punished in the normal sense of the word. In these cases and if there is a danger of the person re-offending, the court may impose preventive supervision (sikring). However, the system of preventive supervision is currently being dismantled. In 1997 the Storting adopted new rules on preventive custody and involuntary transfer to psychiatric custody. These rules have not yet come into force, but the Government has proposed that they do so in 2001. Preventive custody is a punishment and is to replace preventive supervision in those cases where the convicted person is sane and has committed or attempted to commit a serious crime; in addition there must be imminent danger of repetition. Preventive custody means that the convicted person is deprived of liberty and committed to an institution subordinate to the prison service. The length of the punishment is indefinite, but a time-frame shall be fixed in the judgement. Offenders who are insane at the time of the offence due to psychosis or automatism may be sentenced to involuntary transfer to psychiatric custody. As with preventive custody, the main criteria is that the offender has committed a serious crime and that there is imminent danger of repetition. There is no time limit, but the courts may at regular intervals review the criterion of danger of repetition.

In cases where there is doubt as to whether a person is criminally liable, he or she is subjected to examination by court-appointed forensic psychiatrists. All forensic psychiatrists’ examination reports are to be sent to the Forensic Psychiatry Commission for control.

Prisons – The Probation Service

Norway has five facilities for long-term prisoners, 32 district and auxiliary prisons and six open prisons. In 1999 the daily mean number of inmates in the prison service’s institutions was 2,700, of which 114 women.

The Probation and After Care Service (Kriminalomsorg i frihet) has a total of 21 head offices, generally one per county, 26 branch offices and four residential blocks. The function of the offices is to implement penal forms such as community service or supervision orders and also to investigate individuals prior to criminal cases. They also provide support to the inmates of prisons and mediate contact between convicts and other social support agencies.

Coercive measures during criminal investigation

The main rule is that the decision to arrest an individual or search a person or premises should be taken by the Court of Examining and Summary Jurisdiction. If there is a danger in delay, the decision may be taken by the prosecution service or a police officer. The exception is more practical than the main rule, not least for arrest. If the prosecution authorities wish to keep a person remanded in custody, he should normally be brought before the Court of Examining and Summary Jurisdiction on the first working day after the arrest. The decisions of the Court of Examining and Summary Jurisdiction in remand cases are subject to interlocutory appeal, that is, they can be appealed to the High Court. Decisions on telephone tapping, which is permitted in drugs cases, are also taken by the Court of Examining and Summary Jurisdiction.

Mediation in the conflict resolution board

As an alternative to ordinary criminal proceedings, a system of mediation in conflict resolution boards was enacted in 1991. The prosecution service can send minor offences to the conflict resolution board for mediation, for example theft or vandalism. The main target group for conflict board mediation is young offenders, including children under the age of criminal responsibility, sixteen. There is, however, no upper age limit. Mediation means that the offender and victim meet, and with the aid of a mediator endeavour to reach an agreement. Such an agreement may involve, after the parties reckon they have talked the matter over sufficiently, the offender compensating the victim in the form of either money or work. When the offender has kept his side of the bargain he has discharged his debt to society for the offence, and will not appear on the ordinary transcript from the Central Police Register System – although the case will be noted for use in appointment to sensitive positions etc.

A case may also be brought before the conflict resolution board by the parties themselves or by other public bodies such as schools and the municipal child protection service. Conflict boards are increasingly used in civil cases too, that is, cases not brought by the police – this applies both to cases that would otherwise have been criminal, and purely civil disputes. The conflict board system is under constant development, and in 1995 a pilot scheme was initiated for training of teachers and pupils to mediate in school conflicts.

In 1999 the conflict boards considered 6,644 cases, of which 1,723 came from the police. In 2,212 of the cases the offender was under 15 years. As many as 91 per cent of the mediation resulted in an agreement, and only 5 per cent of these agreements were broken.

Civil Judicature

The courts are society’s main conflict resolution service for civil claims but are supplemented by various extra-judicial alternatives. One example of this is arbitration (voldgift), which is an intermediate stage between private and public conflict resolution, and means that the parties appoint a judge, who then decides the case by quasi-judicial procedure. Arbitration is employed in a number of commercial disputes, especially in cases with international aspects. Mediation as a form of conflict resolution is also under development in both the private and public spheres. As described above, the conflict resolution boards are already being used in civil cases, but the agreements made there are not enforced by the courts. It is often a matter of quarrels between neighbours and other such disputes that are not generally brought before the courts. In certain city and district courts (including Oslo City Court since 1999), a pilot scheme of so-called court mediation (rettsmegling) has been launched. This applies to cases brought before the courts. The judge or another person, for example a lawyer, may be appointed to mediate, which is a supplement to the powers to mediate that the courts have hitherto enjoyed.

Besides conflict resolution, the civil aspects of the courts also embrace cases of discretionary assessment, enforcement of claims and division of property, including bankruptcy/liquidation, marital dissolution and probate of wills etc. When the district court (or the above-mentioned tribunals in Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and Stavanger) consider probate and bankruptcy cases, it is referred to as the “Probate Court”, and when considering enforcement of claims etc. it is known as the “Court of Execution”. Civil judicature also includes other several tasks performed by the sheriff and others, as described below.

Conciliation court

mediation and judgement

The conciliation courts, which celebrated their 200th anniversary in 1995, facilitate the rapid and inexpensive resolution of conflicts. Each conciliation court consists of three elected laymen serving as judges. All together, the councils process a considerable number of cases. The overwhelming proportion of these are debts, in consequence of the fact that enforcement of claims often requires the confirmation of the claim by judgement.

Under the law, disputes should in principle be brought to the conciliation court before a writ of summons for the district court. There are nevertheless a number of exceptions of practical importance from this obligation to conciliate first; for example, conciliation may be omitted when both parties have received legal assistance and both one party and his or her lawyer consider it pointless to take the case to the conciliation court. In some types of cases, for example division of property between spouses and child custody, no conciliation is to be undertaken, as other special mediation arrangements apply instead.

When the parties meet, mediation is first undertaken with a view to achieving an amicable settlement. Such a settlement then has the force of law and can be enforced in the same way as a judgement. The conciliation court also has jurisdiction to pass judgement in most kinds of case. This power was considerably extended by a 1993 reform, which also enabled lawyers to a greater extent to represent clients in the conciliation court. especially in debt cases, judgement is often handed down on the basis of written representations, as long as the defendant does not contest the claim or fails to give notice of intent to defend. If the conciliation court finds that a case is too difficult to adjudicate, it can — on request — refer it to the district court. Its judgements can also be appealed to the district courts.

In 1995 the conciliation courts received a total of 101,500 complaints, of which 16,300 lapsed before coming up, 3,700 cases were resolved by amicable settlement, 65,900 were adjudicated by default judgement, 10,000 by ordinary judgement and 5,600 cases were referred to the courts.

Civil cases before the district, city and high courts

In the city and district courts, civil cases are adjudicated as a rule by a single professional judge, if necessary supplemented by two lay assessors, or expert lay assessors if one of the parties so requests or if the judge thinks it desirable. In cases of wrongful dismissal, for example, the court is usually supplemented by lay assessors appointed from lists of individuals with experience of working life, one from the employer and one from the labour side. In cases involving discretionary assessment, for example the fixing of compensation for a public authority’s expropriation of real property, four assessors generally participate, individuals with special expertise in the field.

The court hearings follow the principles of oral proceedings and first-hand evidence, that is, presentation of evidence direct to the bench. Proceedings are normally public.

Judgements of the district court can be appealed to the High Court. In the High Court, three professional judges sit for each case, if necessary supplemented by two or four lay assessors as for the city and district courts. The right to appeal is restricted in accordance with the money value of the case, currently (1999) NOK 20,000. The chief justice of the court may nevertheless authorise appeals in cases involving smaller values, for example if the case involves important questions of principle. In addition, the High Court hears interlocutory appeals against the decisions of the city and district court regarding procedure and against certain other legal decisions, such as those of the court of execution, the probate court, interim restraining orders etc. With certain restrictions, some decisions can be appealed to the Appeals Committee of the Supreme Court.

In 1998 the city and district courts considered about 12,300 civil cases, the High Courts about 1,700 civil appeals .

Appeals to the Supreme Court

In the same way as for the High Court, there are restrictions on the right to appeal to the Supreme Court based on the money value of the case, currently NOK 100,000, with provision for dispensation. The appeal notice is considered first by the Appeals Board of the Supreme Court, which consists of three Supreme Court judges and has a certain discretionary power to refuse leave to appeal to the Supreme Court. This applies when it finds unanimously that the appeal has no chance, but also when neither the importance of the decision outside of the present case nor other circumstances justify reviewing the case in the Supreme Court. Leave to appeal may also be rerefused if it is clear that the appeal can only be granted if the Supreme Court were to quash the decision on a point which was dependent on the first-hand evidence presented to the lower court. As for criminal cases, the presentation of evidence to the Supreme Court is second-hand, that is, evidence is not presented direct to the bench.

Free legal aid

The State can provide free legal aid in the form of free legal advice, free representation in court and exemption from court fees. In the main, free legal aid is limited to people with an income under a certain limit laid down by statutory regulations, and also in principle to certain kinds of case, such as marriage and family cases, compensation for personal injury, unlawful dismissal, rent and so forth, to which certain exceptions and special rules apply.

Consumer cases

Special conflict resolution bodies have been established for disputes between consumers and vendors and craftsmen. If the case cannot be resolved by the county consumer offices, the complainant can bring it before a quasi-judicial body called the Consumer Disputes Board (Forbrukertvistutvalget).

Decisions of the board acquire legal force unless brought before the city or district court within a certain deadline. Moreover, in recent years the consumer protection authorities have cooperated with various industries to establish several so-called industry tribunals (bransjenemnder). These consider for example complaints about insurance or banking services, electricity supply, domestic electrical apparatus, photographic work, estate agencies (realtors) and so forth. A number of cases are brought before these tribunals; their decisions are not normally legally binding but are often adhered to in practice regardless. An innovation of 1995 was the passage of a law whereby the decisions of the Complaints Tribunal for Charter Travel (package holidays) should have the force of law unless brought before the courts.

The execution authorities

The offices of the Enforcement Officer (namnsmann) are responsible for enforcing civil claims. Ordinary enforcement officers are the sheriffs (lensmenn) and the bailiffs (underfogdene) plus separate enforcement departments attached to some of the city courts and the offices of the city magistrates. The organisation of the enforcement officer service is currently under consideration by the Ministry of Justice with a view to a more uniform organisation. In addition to the ordinary enforcement officers come the so-called special enforcement officers for collection of taxes and other public levies, that is, the municipal treasurers, the inspectors of taxes and the county tax offices. Criminal fines and certain other public claims are collected by the State Agency for the Recovery of Fines, Damages and Costs (Statens innkrevingssentral), situated in Mo i Rana in Nordland county.

The Enforcement Officer’s decisions and procedures in execution cases can be appealed to the Court of Execution (namsretten), which is identical with the local city or district court, or the city magistrate if there is one. Decisions on forced sales of real property are also made by the Court of Execution. However, the actual implementation of the sale is generally left to an estate agent or the sheriff, who sells the property in a manner not unlike an ordinary sale. Before the new Enforcement Act came into force in 1993, properties were sold by compulsory auction at the enforcement officer’s premises, which is now the exception rather than the rule.

The civil duties of the sheriffs

The sheriffs have a very long tradition in Norway, as the representatives of the central government in the rural districts for more than 800 years. Besides the duties they are assigned as police authorities, they perform several civil public functions. In addition to the enforcement officer functions they see to a number of extra-judicial discretionary assessment cases (c.f. above for civil cases before the city and district courts). A sheriff’s discretionary assessment can be appealed to the city or district court. A sheriff also performs registration tasks for the probate court, and is chief process-server (hovedstevnevitne) charged with serving writs and sentences. In the towns, the process-server is generally the bailiff or other municipal official.

Notary public – the marriage registrar

The judges of the city and district courts also function as notaries public for their districts, and in this capacity can certify signatures and the correctness of documents. In Oslo, Bergen, Stavanger and Trondheim notarial business is vested in the city magistrates. The notary public is also the civil marriage registrar, and registers homosexual partnerships. In certain situations the sheriffs also possess notarial authority.

Public registers of rights

The Brønnøysund Register Centre (Brønnøysund-registrene) – called after the town in which it is sited, in Nordland county — operates a number of public registers. The Register of Mortgaged and Moveable Property (Løsøreregisteret) is a central register for mortgages and other rights in chattels, including motor vehicles. Other central registers in Brønnøysund are the Register of Business Enterprises (Foretaksregisteret), the Register of Bankruptcy (Konkursregisteret), the Register of Company Accounts (Regnskapsregistet) for annual reports, the Register of Marriage Settlements (Ektepaktregisteret) etc. The centre is undergoing constant development, and in 1995 a new Central Coordinating Register of Legal Entities (Enhetsregisteret) was established to simplify public information on companies and organisations. Most of the information in these registers is available to the public by telephone, fax or online.

Registration of rights in real property is done by the city and district courts, except in Oslo, Bergen, Stavanger and Trondheim, where it is done by the city magistrates. The registers have recently been computerised, and the state-owned company Norsk Eiendomsinformasjon AS offers online property data services.

Some useful addresses:

The Royal Norwegian Ministry of Justice and the Police,

P.O. Box 8005 Dep., 0030 Oslo

The Director-General of Public Prosecutions,

P.O. Box 8002 Dep., 0030 Oslo

The Consumer Council (head office)

Strandveien 35, 1366 Lysaker

The Brønnøysund Register Centre

P.O. Box 1000, 8901 Brønnøysund

The author of the article, Lars Winsvold, took his cand. jur. law degree in 1989. Apart from a period as an assistant judge at Kristiansand City Court from 1993 to 1994, since qualifying he has worked in the Ministry of Justice. On 1 July 1996 he became the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation’s legal adviser.

BÃ¥rd Thorsen was research assistant at the Department of Public Law at the University of Oslo in 2000.

UDA138ENG

Norwegian courts and the administration of justice. Produced by Nytt fra Norge for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs October 2000.

The author is responsible for the contents of the article. Reproduced with permission.