Finland: Litigation in Finland – Finnish Civil Court Proceedings in Brief

Last Updated: 14 February 2006
Article by Gerrit J. van Setten

Foreign and national parties to a dispute are treated equally. In general, foreign parties are given a friendly understanding for not being familiar with the procedure at a Finnish court and when compared to the formal habits and detailed procedural rules in Germany, England or France, foreign clientele often experiences the Finnish way of civil proceedings having something comparable to arbitration.

I. Introduction

The main legal source for Finnish court procedures is the Procedural Act (Oikeuden-käymiskaari) originally from 1734 but subsequently amended, and renewed in 1993. Further statutes and decrees contain related matters such as legal aid, procedures for non-contentious matters, arbitration and enforcement. Civil procedure is statutory law, EU and international conventions on civil procedures are largely implemented and Finnish Supreme Court and EU-Court precendents have an important influence.

The court of first instance is the lower or District Court (käräjäoikeus). Appellate courts are the Court of Appeal (Hovioikeus) and the Supreme Court (Korkein Oikeus). Finland is bilingual and divided into Finnish, Swedish and Finnish and Swedish speaking regions. Official languages, however, are both Finnish and Swedish, and if necessary translations from one into the other official language will be obtained.

II. Jurisdiction of Finnish courts

The jurisdiction of a Finnish court may be provided by either law, including the applicable EU-law and international treaties or, by agreement. As a general rule, the court having jurisdiction at the place of residence or business of the defendant or at the place of fulfillment of the contractual obligation in dispute has jurisdiction in the matter (EU 44/2001, article 5). The parties may also agree on the jurisdiction of a certain court (EU 44/2001, article 23).

III. Initiation of civil procedures

Civil procedures are initiated by the plaintiff and are pending as of the receipt of the plaintiffs application for summons by the court.

The application shall contain all information necessary to identify and to notify the parties to the matter, the claim or demand the court is requested to adjudge, a detailed presentation of the grounds for the claim, the evidence, including an explanation of what the evidence presented intends to prove, a request as to how the costs of litigation shall be adjudged, and if necessary or adviseable, a statement as to the jurisidiction of the court, and the applicable law, if this is not obvious.

Documentary evidence shall be enclosed to the application (either original or copy) and if held in languages other than one of the official languages a translation shall be provided. However, in practice it is sufficient that solely the clauses or provisions relevant to the case are translated and a complete translation is offered in the case the defendant disputes the case or meaning of the document.

Statements drafted for the purpose of being presented to the court are, in principle, not allowed as evidence. If opinions or statements of experts or witnesses shall be introduced to the court the respective person must be named a witness and orally heard in the main hearing.

In the case the application requires adjustments or is incomplete, the court will request the plaintiff to adjust or complete its application. Should the plaintiff fail to do so, the application may be dismissed. The application for summons is not subject to any kind of payments to the court. Whilst lawyers predominately charge their legal fees by the hour, the Finnish courts are "free of charge", except for certain administrational payments. A decision on a dispute, example given, causes costs of less than 200 €.

The summons are served to the defendant by the court. It is common that the summons are served by registered mail or by the bailiff. In certain cases the court may leave the serving of the summons to the plaintiff. If the defendant is a legal entity, the court often requires an excerpt from the trade register of the defendant in order to examine and to ensure the legal representatives of the defendant.

Together with the summons the defendant is served a notification of the court informing the defendant about the possibility to respond to the summons, about the obligation to respond thoroughly and to disclose own evidence, and about the time limit for a respond. If the defendant is foreign, i.e. resident or registered abroad, the summons need to be accompanied by an official translation. The time limit to respond is usually 30 days, and an extention of time may be applied for. Time limits end at close of business (16.15 local time) of the given date.

Communication and writes to the court, including the response to summons, shall be held in either Finnish or Swedish. Even though this seems selfunderstanding, foreign defendants often respond in their own language, especially when it comes to Germany and the English speaking countries.

IV. Preparation and preliminary hearing(s)

The parties will be given the possibility to exchange written statements until the court considers the matter being prepared, sufficiently. Depending on the court and on how large and disputed the matters in question are the written preparation may take over a year.

The written preparation is followed by a preliminary oral hearing of the case at court. The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to clarify the case, the matters parties consent or disagree, the claims of the parties and their grounds, and the evidence. The prelimary hearing may be followed by further preliminary hearings. The court usually prepares a written summary of the matter (terms of reference), and the parties ought to decide on what evidence and witnesses they present. The preliminary hearings are informal and mostly held in the presence of solely the legal representatives of the parties. As soon as the case is ready for the main hearing, the court and the parties agree on the date of the hearing and on further details, including but not limited to who shall invite or summon the witnesses to appear. The court has only very restricted possibilities to require that certain evidence shall be presented or witnesses be heard.

At the end of the preliminary hearings the preparation will declared closed. Upon closing of the preparational period the parties are precluded from bringing further facts, writes or witnesses to the court, certain exception, however, exist. In practice this means that the case has to be prepared thoroughly and in good time.

During the preparation the proceedings may end at any time by either a party´s default or if the parties reach a settlement.

If necessary, the court will decide on procedural or other questions relevant for the further proceedings during the preparation of the matter.

Procedural arguments must be raised "first thing". Example given, if to the defendant´s opinion the court has no jurisdiction in the matter, this argument must be raised prior to answering the material matter as such.

Also, EU procedural law provides for cross-border legal assistance and possibilities to hear or have witnesses heard abroad.

V. The main hearing

The main hearing is to be held immediately or within 14 days after the end of the preparation, if chaired by one judge (in larger or difficult cases a request for a tribunal consisting of three judges may be made). In order to avoid this tight time constraint, in practice the court and the parties often agree on a (pro forma) continued prelimnary hearing in the morning of the date for the main hearing.

The main hearing consists of the opening statements of the parties, the presentation of the evidence (hearing of the witnesses) and the closing statements of the parties. As the Procedural Act requires the main hearing to be immediate and oral, the parties are forced to present the whole case orally. Should new evidence be allowned and brought forward or the facts have changed, the main hearing may be postponed for 45 days at the longest. In all other case the main hearing must be redone from the very beginning.

During the main hearing the plaintiff is to bring his (opening and closing) statements first, then the turn is on the defendant. Accordingly, also the witnesses of the plaintiff are heard first, then the witnesses of the defendant. Both parties are allowed to ask question to the other party´s witnesses. The judge(s) may ask questions, but usually the judge(s) only guide the proceedings and listen to the parties and witnesses statements leaving the active role to the parties.

The main hearing is recorded on tape and the tapes are later available to the parties. Minutes in writing do not contain much more than the parties, witnesses and similar basic information.

After the closing of the main hearing the court should give its decision within 14 days, which time limit may and often is extended. The judgement consists of a report on the facts, claims and statements of the parties, an evaluation of the evidence and the statements of the witnesses, and on the reasons and legal grounds on which the decision of the court is based. The summary (terms of reference) drawn up during the preliminary hearing serves as a kind of basis for the judgement, and therefore should be examined carefull through the whole preparation.

In regard of the litigation costs and legal fees of the parties, the losing party will be obliged to reimburse the winning party in total or in part, depending on the case and on how it is won.

VI. Appeal

The parties are entitled to appeal to the Court of Appeal (Hovioikeus). The court must be notified of the intention to consider an appeal (notice of disagreement) within 7 days and the appeal (valitus) shall then be submitted within 30 days as of the date or receipt of the judgement.

The appeal procedure does not necessarily lead to a full new hearing of the case. If the court finds it necessary or if a party so requests and if the evidence requires to be re-evaluated and assessed again, an oral hearing will be arranged. However, the parties are precluded from bringing forward anything they could have brought to the attention of the court of first instance. The Appellate Court reviews the case to the extent of such changes to the judgement that can be drived from the party´s statements.

The decision of the Appellate Court may be further appealed at the Supreme Court, if the possibility to further appeal is granted by the court which usually requires a severe error in the application of the law by the lower courts or a case demanding a need of a precedent or special procedural issues such as an annulment of decision. The Supreme Court considers legal issues on the basis of the given facts of the case, and procdures are mostly in writing.

VII. Enforcement

In general, judgements are immediately enforceable. In regard of decisions of District Courts the enforcement usually requires security until the decision gains legal force or has been held up at the Appellate Court.

Finland has implemented the EU-decrees on legal cooperation and the enforceability of foreign judgements for reason of which decisions of Finnish courts are enforceable within the EU. Outside of the EU the enforceability is subject to international or bilateral treaties and national laws.

VIII. Finding your lawyer

Finland´s business and law community is "small", and regarding international affairs or special matters of law almost everyone knows or has heard about everyone. In general, Finnish clients select their lawyers on the basis of whom they personally know or for reason of the individual reputation or recommendation rather than the brand name of a certain firm. When looking for a specialist in international matter, you will be looking at a few larger law firms and a few smaller law firms of 2 - 10 lawyers.

The legal expertise varies, and neither a co-operation network nor the size of a law firm is a guarantee for quality or anything other foreign clientele come to expect.

Check that the law firm has the experience, language skills and the resources needed to pursue your matter, and that you have a skilled partner remaining in charge of your case.

IX. Legal Fees

The law does not provide for anything else than that legal fees shall be appropriate. Usually, law firms charge on an hourly rate, contingency and success fees are permitted but unusual. Average billing rates depend on the matter, skill requirements, and the location of the lawyer. Average billing rates in international litigation matters may deemed € 150 - 300 €/hour in standard matters, 250 – 400 € in matters requiring special skills and experience.

As the civil procedure is quite time consuming, especially when it comes to the preliminary hearing(s) and main hearings lasting two or five days around the clock, costs may increase easily. Thus, shopping around may be worth the effort.

It is not mandatory for a lawyer to be member of the Bar to provide legal advice. If you are looking for a fully qualified lawyer and member of the Bar, his professional title is "asianajaja", and also the name of the law firm contains the word "asianajotoimisto". An "asianajaja" is both a solicitor and a barrister or in Germany a Rechtsanwalt. Translated into English you will often find the word "Attorney-at-law", but this is a widely used expression and does not necessarily mean a member of the Bar.

A party´s costs of litigation (legal bills, travel expenses etc.) are presented at the end of the main hearing, and adjudged as part of the judgement.

All rights reserved. This article is copyright protected © 2004 van Setten Kuusniemi & Partner Asianajotoimisto Oy, Helsinki (VSK), and may not be copied, reproduced or distributed in any part thereof without the prior written consent of VSK. Consented is the private use for own non-commercial information. The article and the information contained therein is for information only and does not constitute any form of legal advice, and no warranty is given for the accurancy and correctness of the information.

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Authors
Gerrit J. van Setten
 
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