Criminal proceedings in district court

What happens before a trial?

Police investigates the offence

When an offence has been reported to the police, they start investigating it. The person suspected of the offence and the victim are questioned. Other persons who may know something that can help determine the course of events are also questioned.

During the criminal investigation carried out by the police, the victim is also inquired whether he or she has any claims for damages.

The decision on whether a case investigated by the police will be taken to court is made by the prosecutor.

Prosecutor decides whether to bring a charge

If the prosecutor considers that there are grounds to bring a charge against the suspect, he or she submits an application for a summons and other related documentation to a district court. The application for a summons indicates the charge brought against the suspect.

If the offence is petty, the prosecutor may, under conditions laid down in the law, decide not to bring a charge. If the victim of the offence considers the prosecutor's decision to be wrongful, the victim may bring a charge himself or herself.

Who is who in court?

Criminal proceedings in court are led by a judge. Most criminal cases are heard and decided by a single legally qualified judge. The most serious criminal cases are heard by a composition consisting of a legally qualified judge and lay judges. A criminal case may also be heard by a panel of two or three legally qualified judges, if the matter is particularly complex or there are other special reasons for this.

The parties to criminal proceedings are the victim of the crime (i.e. the injured party) if he or she has claims, the accused (i.e. the defendant), and the prosecutor, who will present the charge. In addition, witnesses are often heard in order to resolve the case.

As a defendant in court

The defendant is informed of the charge when he or she is served with a summons. The summons is issued either by the court or the prosecutor.

In the summons, the defendant is urged to respond to the claims presented against him or her. The defendant is often summoned to appear in the court, but in some cases the defendant may be requested to submit a written response to the charge already before the trial.

In the trial, at the latest, the defendant is inquired whether he or she admits or denies having committed the offence with which he or she is being charged. The defendant's views on the injured party's claims for damages are also inquired.

As an injured party in court

If the injured party has claims for damages, he or she may request the prosecutor to present them in court. The prosecutor may pursue a claim for damages on the injured party's behalf, if the matter is simple and straightforward and an invoice, a receipt or another written account of the claim has been submitted to the prosecutor.

If the injured party pursues a claim for damages himself or herself, the claim may be either submitted to the court in writing before the trial or presented in the trial.

The injured party may be summoned to appear before the court in person, if his or her presence is necessary for resolving the case. In this case, the injured party is entitled to receive compensation for his or her travel expenses and loss of income.

Obligation to appear before the court

The court or the prosecutor summons the parties to the trial (main hearing). The parties should read the summons carefully, because it contains information on whether the party must appear in court in person or whether he or she may be represented by a legal counsel. It is also stated in the summons whether the case may be decided in the absence of the party.

As a witness in court

As a rule, everyone is obliged to tell the court what they know about the offence being considered. There are, however, certain exceptions to the general obligation to testify. A close relative of the defendant, for example, has the right to refuse to testify.

A person who has been called as a witness must, however, always appear before the court, even if it would later turn out that he or she does not need to testify. If necessary, the chairperson of the court informs a witness about his or her right to refuse to testify.

First, the witness makes an affirmation. After that, the witness tells what he or she knows about the case. The parties to the case and the court may present questions to the witness.

Witnesses must always tell the truth. A witness who lies or consciously conceals a pertinent circumstance may be accused of giving a false statement. The punishment for giving a false statement in court is usually imprisonment.

Witnesses are entitled to receive compensation for their travel expenses and loss of income.

Stages of a trial

The hearing of a criminal case begins as the prosecutor presents the claims against the defendant and states the reasons for them. The injured party may have requested the prosecutor to present his or her claims in the case as well. If the injured party presents the claims for damages himself or herself, he or she is given the floor after the prosecutor.

Thereafter, the defendant is heard. The defendant may either admit or deny the offence, of which the prosecutor accuses him or her. The defendant also states whether he or she agrees to pay the damages claimed by the injured party.

Next, the prosecutor and the injured party present more detailed reasons for their statements. The defendant states his or her own position as to the matters presented in the court.

Thereafter, the witnesses are heard. The injured party and the defendant may also be heard for the purpose of giving evidence. The statements of the witnesses are recorded. The court may also admit other evidence, for example written evidence.

Finally, the parties present their opinions on the sentence to be imposed in the case. If the hearing of a case takes more than one day, it is usually continued on the very next day.

All matters are handled orally in a trial. Any written statements are no longer read. Most trials are open to the public, which means that anyone is welcome to attend a hearing. The court may, however, under certain conditions decide that a case is to be heard behind closed doors.

Judgment and its enforcement

When a case has been thoroughly dealt with, the court makes its decision in the case. The judgment is usually pronounced at the end of the main hearing. In extensive and complex cases, however, the judgment may be handed down later. In that case, the court informs the parties that the judgment will be available at the registry of the court on a given day.

The judgment consists of a decision and a statement of reasons. The judgment states whether the charge has been dismissed or whether the defendant is sentenced to a punishment for the offence. The damages to be paid to the injured party are also specified in the judgment.

Fees and compensations

No fees are charged for criminal proceedings in a district court in cases where the charge is brought by the prosecutor.

If the defendant is found guilty of the offence, he or she is usually rendered liable to compensate the state for all the costs incurred in the case (for example compensations payable to witnesses, fees of the legal counsel and support person of the victim, and laboratory expenses).

The payment liability may, however, be reduced or completely waived, if it would be unreasonable for the defendant.

The court may order the offender to pay damages to the injured party. If the sentenced person fails to pay the damages voluntarily, the injured party may commence enforcement proceedings by submitting a copy of the judgment to the enforcement authorities.

Under certain conditions, the victim may also be eligible for compensation for criminal damage from state funds. Nevertheless, damages to property are compensated for only in exceptional cases. State-funded compensation must be separately applied for at the State Treasury. After the decision on the compensation is made, the state may order the offender to reimburse the state for the compensation.

How to appeal a judgment

If the sentenced person, prosecutor or injured party is dissatisfied with the judgment of the district court, they may lodge an appeal against it. The district court appends appeal instructions to the decision.

A decision of the district court may be appealed to a court of appeal. The time allowed for appeal is 30 days, but a person wishing to appeal against a decision must declare his or her intent to appeal within seven days from the date of decision to the district court that decided the case.

In the appeal document, the appellant must state on what grounds he or she is dissatisfied with the judgment and how he or she wishes to have it amended.

If none of the parties appeals against the judgment, it becomes final.

As a rule, leave for continued consideration is required for a matter to be taken up for full-scale consideration at a court of appeal.

Where to obtain legal assistance

A person having to attend a trial may require legal assistance in order to have his or her matter dealt with. Legal assistance is provided by public legal aid attorneys, attorneys-at-law and licensed legal counsels.

Legal assistance is usually subject to a charge. If a party to a trial cannot afford legal assistance, it may either partly or in full be paid from state funds, in which case the assistance is referred to as 'legal aid'.

In other than simple criminal cases, a legal counsel may also be appointed for a party.

Defence counsel may be appointed for a criminal suspect

A criminal suspect is in certain cases entitled to have a state-funded defence counsel, regardless of his or her financial situation, to assist him or her in the criminal investigation and trial. A defence counsel can be appointed for a person suspected of an aggravated offence or for a person under arrest or on remand upon the person's request. For a person under 18 years of age and for a person not capable of defending himself or herself, the court may appoint a defence counsel on its own initiative.

In cases referred to above, a defence counsel is appointed for the person regardless of his or her financial situation. The defence counsel's fee is paid by the state. If the person is sentenced to punishment for the offence, he or she must, however, reimburse the state for the defence counsel's fee, unless his or her financial situation entitles him or her to legal aid. The amount of the reimbursement is determined in accordance with the same criteria as in legal aid.

A public legal aid attorney, an attorney-at-law or, for special reasons, a licensed legal counsel may be appointed as defence counsel. Usually, the person that the suspect suggests for the task is appointed as defence counsel.

Legal counsel and support person may be appointed for a victim

If a person has become a victim of domestic violence, a sex offence or other serious violence, the court may, when necessary, appoint both a legal counsel and a support person for him or her for the criminal investigation and the trial. The counsel assists the victim in the judicial proceedings related to the case, whereas the support person provides mental support.

The counsel and the support person may be appointed regardless of the victim's income. Their fees and expenses are paid from state funds.

Written procedure

Some criminal cases may be considered in the district court in written procedure. This means that the judge decides the matter solely on the basis of written material. An oral hearing is not held and the parties are not summoned to court.

Most petty and simple offences, such as cases of driving while intoxicated, may be considered in written procedure. The written procedure requires that the accused confesses the offence and consents to the written procedure. Also the possible victim of the offence must consent to the written procedure.

Offences committed by persons under 18 years of age cannot, however, be considered in written procedure.

The defendant has the right to present his or her opinion on the demand for punishment and on the possible claims for damages also in written procedure. This is done in writing.

The district court sends the judgment passed in written procedure to the parties.