Researching Icelandic Law
by Rán Tryggvadóttir and Thordis Ingadóttir
Rán Tryggvadóttir is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law at Reykjavik University. She is a Cand.juris from the University of Iceland and holds a M.Phil. degree from the University of Edinburgh School of Law. Her field of specialty is Intellectual Property and IT-law.
Thordis Ingadóttir is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law at Reykjavik University. She is a Cand. juris from the University of Iceland and holds a LL.M degree in International Legal Studies from New York University School of Law. Her field of specialty is International Law.
Published February 2007
Table of Contents
2.3 The Judiciary
3.1 The Constitution
3.2 Statutory Law
3.3 Regulatory Law
3.5 Customary Law
Iceland is an island of 103.000 km2 (39,756 sq.miles) situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, controlling 758.000 km2 of the North Atlantic Ocean within its economic zone The settlement of Iceland started around 874 AD and the Parliament (in Icelandic Althingi) was established in 930 AD. The Republic of Iceland was established in 1944, when full independence was gained from Denmark.
The population of Iceland is around 300.000. Thereof 4.6 percent are of foreign nationality. Life expectancy of Icelandic women is 83 years and 79 of men. Roughly half of the population lives in the capital Reykjavík and its neighboring towns in the southwest. The highland interior is uninhabited, and most centers of population are situated on the coast. Iceland has extensive hydro and geothermal resources and 99,7 percent of all electricity in Iceland is from renewable resources. The language in Iceland is Icelandic, which belongs to the Nordic group of Germanic languages.
Iceland is the 11th largest fishing nation in the world. The economy is heavily dependent on that industry; seafood exports account for nearly three-quarters of merchandise exports and approximately half of all foreign exchange earnings. Yet less than 10 per cent of the workforce is involved in fishing and fish processing. The travel industry makes up the second largest export industry in Iceland. Aluminum production is also an important contributor to the economy. The standard of living is high, with income per capita among the highest in the world. The financial sector has been liberalized in recent years. The economy is service-oriented: two-thirds of the working population is employed in the service sector, both public and private.
Like the other Nordic countries, Iceland is characterized by its comparatively strong welfare oriented profile. The country has a progressive tax system, an education system financed entirely through taxation at primary and secondary level and to a large extent at tertiary level. There is universal welfare insurance and a social security benefits system.
Iceland is one of the Nordic countries, is a member of the United Nations, IMF, World Bank, OECD, EBRD, WTO, EFTA, the European Economic Area and Schengen, Council of Europe, OSCE, and NATO.
The Althingi was established in 930 AD and was a key element of Iceland’s existence as an independent state for several centuries after the settlement. However, in 1262-1264 Iceland came under the authority of the Norwegian crown and towards the end of the 14th century royal succession brought both Norway and Iceland under the control of the Danish crown. Iceland remained under the rule of Denmark until the 20th century. In 1903 it received home rule and parliamentary government, in 1918 the Act of Union made Iceland a sovereign state unified with Denmark through the person of the monarch. The country then received full independence when the union with Denmark was dissolved in 1944. The Republic's present Constitution dates from the same year, though many of its provisions are much older and can be traced back to 1874 when the country received its first constitution.
The Icelandic legal system is heavily influenced by the systems in the other Nordic countries, especially that of Denmark. The Nordic legal systems share several common features with continental European legal systems. Nevertheless, the legal systems of the Nordic countries have evolved distinct characteristics.
According to the Constitution (Art. 2), the Althingi and the President of Iceland jointly exercise legislative power. In reality it is the Althingi which holds the power of legislating while the President gives parliamentary bills formal consent, see Art. 26 of the Constitution. Since the establishment of the Republic of Iceland in 1944, the President has only once refused consent, in the summer of 2004. The bill was on the ownership of media and was very controversial.
The Althingi consists of 63 elected members who sit in a single chamber. Parliamentary elections must be held at least every four years, the next one being in May 2007. There are now five parties represented in the Althingi (the Independence Party, Social Democratic Alliance, the Progress Party, the Left-Green Movement and the Liberal Party).
All proposed legislation must be submitted within six months of the commencement of the parliamentary session, i.e. before 1st April, but a majority of Althingi can admit a bill which has been submitted after this deadline. According to the Constitution, Art. 44, no draft legislation may be adopted until it has received three readings by the Althingi. Bills are generally referred to committee between the first and second readings. Once the bill has been adopted and confirmed by the President it has to be published, see Art. 27 of the Constitution.
The President and other governmental authorities exercise executive power, see Art. 2 of the Constitution. However, the executive power of the President is of a more formal than actual nature. Art. 13 and 19 of the Constitution stipulate that the President entrusts his authority to Ministers and that his signature validates a legislative act or government measure when countersigned by a Minister. According to Art. 15 of the Constitution, the President appoints and dismisses individual ministers. This has to be seen in the light of the rule of representative government. The President is bound to follow the will of the majority of Parliament. He has the obligation to invite the Party which is most likely to be able to form a Government. If it proves to be impossible to form a Government that has a majority of seats in Parliament, a Government based on a minority can be formed or a Government of members outside of Parliament. The latter scenario has only happened once since the establishment of the Republic, during 1942-1944. Since 1995 there have been successive coalition governments of the Independence Party and the Progressive Party.
The President distributes assignments between ministers according to Art. 15 of the Constitution. The distribution is enacted through the Act on the Government Offices of Iceland No. 73/1969 (only in Icelandic). There it is stipulated that the Government Offices of Iceland are to be divided into the following ministries; the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs, the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Finance, Statistics Iceland, Ministry of Health and Social Security, Ministries of Industry and Commerce, Ministry of Agriculture (homepage only in Icelandic), Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, Ministry of Communications, Ministry of Fisheries, Ministry for the Environment, and the Minstry for Foreign Affairs. Each ministry typically consists of a central department with a number of ministerial agencies under its jurisdiction.
According to Art. 78 of the Constitution some public tasks are to be delegated to local municipalities. The extent and circumstances of the delegations is defined by the Local Government Act No. 45/1998. According to the recent reform of the structure of local and regional governance, Iceland is now divided into 79 local municipalities. Each municipality is governed by an elected body of locally elected representatives.
The Constitution stipulates in Art. 2 that judges exercise judicial power and according to Art. 59 the organization of the judiciary can only be established by law. The main Act on the organization of the judiciary is Act No. 15/1998 on Courts. The judicial court system of Iceland comprises 8 District Courts, of which the Reykjavík District Court is by far the largest, and the Supreme Court (Hæstiréttur Íslands). Additionally, there are two Special Courts; the Labour Court (in Icelandic Félagsdómur) which deals with trade union matters and industrial disputes according to the Act on Trade Unions and Industrial Disputes, No. 80/1938 (unofficial English translation), see Section IV of the Act. The decisions of Félagsdómur are available online (only in Icelandic) since the year 2000. The other Special Court is the Court of Impeachment (in Icelandic Landsdómur) which has competence if Ministers, in pursuance of their official tasks, are impeached, see Art. 14 of the Constitution and Act No. 3/1963 (not translated). Landsdómur was established in 1905 but has never been convened.
In order to guarantee the independence of the judiciary it is stipulated in Art. 61 of the Constitution that in the performance of their official duties, judges shall be guided solely by the law. In the same Article it is further stipulated that those judges who do not also have administrative functions cannot be discharged from office except by a judicial decision, nor may they be transferred to another office against their will, except in the event of re-organization of the judiciary.
The district courts in Iceland have jurisdiction in civil as well as criminal cases. The judges of the district courts are 38 in number and are appointed to their offices for an indefinite period of time by the Minister of Justice, see Art. 12 of Act No. 15/1998. The Judicial Council, which is established according to Act No. 15/1998, deals with matters pertaining to the district courts, see Art. 13.-15. It was established in 1998 to secure to a greater extent the independence of the Judiciary from the executive power. The Judicial Council’s authority only extends to the district courts.
The Supreme Court is the only court of appeal and has nationwide jurisdiction. It is composed of nine judges, commissioned for an indefinite period of time by the President of Iceland as proposed by the Minister of Justice, see Art. 4 of Act No. 15/1998. Judgments in criminal cases may be referred to the Supreme Court without any restriction while the appeal of civil judgments is dependent on minor requirements related to the minimum interests at stake.
Iceland has a civil law legal system and thus Icelandic law is characterized by written law. Major sources of law in Iceland include the Constitution, statutory legislation, and regulatory statutes. Other legal resources are precedent and customary law. The recognition of tradition of culture (in Icelandic eðli máls) does bear significantly on Icelandic law in a variety of contexts. Act No. 15/2005 stipulates how official material, including adopted Acts, are published.
The Constitutional Act represents the highest national legal authority. Iceland received its first Constitution in 1874 and the current Constitution of 1944 (Act. No. 33/19944) can be traced back to it. The Constitution is composed of seven Chapters, with a total of 79 Articles: Chapter One provides for Iceland’s status as a Republic with a parliamentary government, and the separation of the three principal branches of the government; Chapter two stipulates the election and powers of the President; Chapter three and four set out the composition and mandate of the parliament; Chapter five addresses the organization and role of the judiciary; Chapter six lays down that the Evangelical Lutheran Church shall be the State Church in Iceland; Chapter seven includes thirteen human rights provisions, including the right to equal treatment, freedom from interference with privacy and right to freedom of opinion and belief.
The Constitution has been revised seven times. Fundamental changes were made to the human rights chapter of the Icelandic Constitution with Constitutional Act No. 97/1995. The bill accompanying the Act made several references to the European Convention on Human Rights as well as to other Council of Europe and United Nations human rights instruments to which Iceland is a party. Further amendments to the Constitution are envisioned. Early in 2005 the office of the Prime Minister appointed a committee to consider revisions of the Constitution. The committee was to finish its task at the end of 2006. Proposals to amend or supplement the Constitution may be introduced at regular as well as extraordinary sessions of the Althingi. If the proposal is adopted, the Althingi shall immediately be dissolved and a general election held. If the Althingi then passes the resolution unchanged, it shall be confirmed by the President of the Republic and come into force as constitutional law (see Art. 79). The Constitution is available in English Translation.
Except with respect to constitutional issues, legislation enjoys primacy as a source of law. With the increasing complexity of economic and social life, the amount and importance of legislation has even increased. The area of private law is dominated by a range of individual statutory acts and the area of general criminal law is governed by the General Penal Code No. 19, February 12, 1940 (official translation). New general revised acts have been adopted in principal areas of law, such as the Act on Customs (Act No. 88/2005) and the Act in Respect of Children (Act No. 2003). In the last few years, numerous pieces of legislation have been adopted in certain fields of law, such as in banking, communications, corporations and intellectual property rights.
Legal Acts are published in the Legal Gazette (Stjórnartíðindi), section A. Since 2005 publication has been in electronic form. All Acts are also accessible on the Althingi’s homepage under the heading “Lagasafn” but as with the Legal Gazette they are only in Icelandic. Official and unofficial translations of certain Acts can be found on the web-pages of the relevant ministries, accessible through the portal www.government.is.
Frequently, statutory acts give the administration the authority to issue regulations. As sources of law, statutory acts prevail over regulations. Public executive regulations and directives are published in the Legal Gazette, section B. They are also available online on www.reglugerd.is, only in Icelandic. Official and unofficial translations of certain regulations can be found on the web-pages of the relevant ministries, accessible through the portal www.government.is.
Being a civil law country, court practice in Iceland does not have the same authoritative role as in Common Law countries. The Supreme Court has no duty to follow its earlier decisions, and the district courts are not obligated to adhere to earlier decisions of the Supreme Court. However, in matters of legal uncertainty, the decisions of the Supreme Court have considerable authority for the disposition of future cases. In certain areas of law which did or do not have extensive statutory legislation, e.g., tort, the decisions of the Supreme Court are a source of law of central importance.
Since the beginning of the year 2006, the decisions of the district courts in Iceland have been published online (only in Icelandic) on the Judicial Councils (in Icelandic) webpage. The decisions of the Supreme Court are also published online on the Courts homepage (in Icelandic).
In Iceland, a custom can acquire the force of law, i.e., become a source of law. For instance, customary law has been an important source of law in Constitutional matters.
Tradition of culture refers to considerations of fairness, justice and feasibility as to needs of the society and resembles to some extent the legal term equity. Some commentators consider the use of this source of law as distinctive for Nordic legal traditions. In particular, when other sources of law have not been able to establish a rule of law, courts in Iceland have in some cases relied on Tradition of Culture.
In some areas of law statements by an administrative organ can carry considerable authority. For instance, in the area of administrative law, the statements of the parliament´s Ombudsman (in Icelandic Umboðsmaður Althingis) carry considerably authority. The Ombudsman´s statements are published and are also available on his website. Similarly, in the area of tax law, the decisions of the Internal Revenue Board can carry considerable weight.
Iceland is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA). The Agreement on the EEA, which came into force in 1994, extends the Single Market of the European Union (EU) to three out of the four EFTA countries, namely Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein.
Membership of the EEA has affected Icelandic legislation considerably. The EEA Agreement is based on the primary legislation of the EU, as developed over the past 30 years and on the relevant succeeding secondary legislation (Acquis Communautaire). To achieve homogeneity between the EEA and EU, the agreement incorporates hundreds of acts, largely identical to the relevant parts of the EC legislation, and these acts are made part of the internal legal order of the contracting parties. Importantly, this process is continuous; each month a number of pieces of EC legislation, relevant for the EEA, are incorporated in the agreement by decision of EEA Joint Committee.
The decisions of the EEA Joint Committee are published in the EEA Supplement to the Offical Journal of the European Union a weekly legal gazette containing EEA-related texts from EFTA and EU bodies.
With respect to the relation between municipal law and international law, Iceland adheres to the principle of dualism. Therefore, ratified international treaties do not assume the force of domestic law, but rather are only binding according to international law. The Supreme Court of Iceland has sought to interpret Icelandic law, as far as possible, in conformity with Iceland’s international obligations. The Court has made several references to international obligations undertaken by Iceland, and it has interpreted both the Constitution and other laws in coherence with such obligations. Interestingly, these references include also instruments which have not been incorporated into Icelandic law, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The European Convention on Human Rights was incorporated into Icelandic law by Act No. 62/1994. Following its incorporation, its provisions can be directly invoked in court as domestic legislation. Other major human rights instruments ratified by Iceland, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Right and Convention on the Rights of the Child, have not been incorporated into Icelandic law.
International Agreements that Iceland has ratified are published in the Legal Gazette, Section C.
There are four schools of law in Iceland. To enter an Icelandic law school, a student needs to have graduated from a secondary high-school. After three years of study, a bachelor’s degree is delivered, with which it is possible to work as a lawyer. A master’s degree (two years of study) is a requirement to take the Icelandic Bar Examination, and is likely to be the standard diploma sought by students, who are not expected to commonly start a professional career after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in law. A Ph.D. in law is offered at some universities. The following universities have a school of law: Bifröst University, Reykjavik University, the University of Akureyri, and the University of Iceland.
- Iceland in figures 2005-2006, published by Statistic Iceland and Ministry for Foreign Affairs, November 2005.
- The Association of Local Authorities in Iceland
- Althingi (Parliament)
- Government offices of Iceland – this portal provides a link to each of the Ministries homepages in English. Most Ministries have a link to English translation of some of the legislation falling under their control.
- The Supreme Court of Iceland
- Icelandic Directorate of Immigration
- Iceland and the European Union
- The Ministry for Foreign affairs official gateway to Iceland
- The Ministry for Foreign Affairs website overview of Iceland’s bilateral and multilateral agreements
- The Althingi Ombudsman