450-year-old judicial instructions

"The good of the common man is the supreme law"

What is neither just not equitable, cannot be the law; it is for the equity in the law that it is accepted.

All law shall by applied with wisdom, because the greatest justice is the greatest injustice, and mercy shall be included in all justice.

The good of the common man is the supreme law; and therefore, what is found useful for the common man shall be deemed the law even if the words of a written law would seem to order otherwise.

These extracts date back to the very beginning of the New Age, the Instructions for a Judge, to be found on the first pages of the Laws of Finland. The main theme of these instructions, comprising a few pages, is that the laws and authorities are for the good of the people and that power must not be abused.

The Instructions for a Judge are a collection of legal principles, drafted by Olaus Petri, reformer, minister and legal scholar, in the 1530s. "Some general rules which the judge shall comply with " were first printed in 1616. Since 1635 – i.e., for more than 360 years –they have formed and still form the introduction of the collections of laws published annually both in Sweden and in Finland.

At the time Olaus Petri collected the Instructions, Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden. These instructions are, in fact, part of the common 700-year-old history of Finland and Sweden, which lasted until the beginning of the 19th century.

During the centuries, the Instructions for a Judge have become an essential part of the Nordic, both Finnish and Swedish, legal tradition. The general principles and practical advice of the Instructions still contain a lot of valid and acceptable wisdom to guide the interpretation of the laws.

No one can give another a better right than he has himself.

A wrongful acquisition is no acquisition.

He who has no goods shall suffer a corporeal punishment.

The law does not approve everything not ordered punishable, because all crimes cannot be listed in the book.

Not everything that look true, is true.

What is gained through sin, is lost through sorrow.

He who acts against the purpose of the law acts against the law even if he seems to comply with the words of the law.

The roots of the Instructions for a Judge are deep in the Middle Ages, in ancient times and even in the days of the Old Testament. In the form of separate rules, the Instructions contain guidelines based on the Bible, Roman and Canon law, German legal principles and Swedish law, and most of them have become generally accepted legal principles. They also include old Swedish popular sayings, proverbs.

Although the Instructions have never been confirmed as the law, they have, as the introduction to the Collection of Laws, had quite a profound influence on judicial practice. As time has gone by, a large number of these rules on civil, criminal and procedural law have also found their way into the laws.

A guarantee is a promise to pay.
Reproach shall go unpunished, although not always.
An enemy may not give testimony.
A contract supersedes the law.
Evil shall not be corrected by a greater evil.
No one may be a judge in his own case.
No one shall be sentenced for the words of one man only.
Hitting someone is breaking the law.
Arbitrary rule or violence is not the law of the land.
Associating with others shall be governed by the law, not by fists.
Confession equals proof.
What has been done cannot be undone.
What you hurt with, you better with.
The words of a stranger are inadmissible.
If you abuse your freedom, you deserve to forfeit it.

The Instructions for a Judge are not the only ones of their kind, but what is exceptional is that the principles attributed to Olaus Petri have maintained their significance all the way to our days. The main reason for this is thought to be the fact that the contents are in harmony with the general Swedish and Finnish sense of justice.

The language of the Instructions is simple and to the point; the principles have been accepted as general. Also common people have been able to understand these simple rules.

A wrongful fine will not make a lord rich,
But the law and justice are for the glory of God.

All the laws have been enacted for the sake of justice and equity and not for fines. For a fine is to punish those who break the law; but the law prefers not to be broken and would willingly go without fines.

What the judge needs most is wisdom so that he knows when to be strict for the law and when to be lenient, for all punishment shall promote betterment, and where possible, no punishment shall prevent the punished one from bettering himself. ... Therefore the judge shall, in such matters, act wisely so as not to make bad doubly worse: but the law always demands betterment, and for betterment it shall be used.

Some of the Instructions for a Judge deal with false fines, which refers to King Gustavus Vasa of Sweden, who sentenced people to death and then allowed them to buy their freedom with fines. This also happened to Olaus Petri himself in 1540; he was charged with publicly criticising the King’s way of ruling.

Olaus Petri also interfered with other arbitrary rules and harshness in the application of justice. The Instructions for a Judge start with binding admonitions to judge correctly. He invokes God to make a judge beware of arbitrary rule and injustice. What has been considered unique is the idea of the ‘betterment’ of a criminal already contained in the Instructions – this was, after all, an era in which punishments became harder, the powers of the kings were becoming absolute and even quite cruel punishments to scare people and to revenge a wrong were generally considered acceptable. Olaus already said what was otherwise not said until the legal scholars of the Age of Enlightenment said it a few centuries later.

A judge shall not be hasty to punish before he has carefully thought the matter through; because a hasty punishment is seldom good and just.

Similar crimes call for similar punishments, and therefore you must not look whether one is rich or poor, but punish one like the other when the crimes are equal.

The judge shall also remember that his office is for the benefit of the common people and not for the benefit of the judge himself, and therefore he must look after the good of the common people and not of himself, even though it is also good for him when he acts correctly. His goal in office shall, however, be the common good and not his own good. Because the judge is for the common people and not the people for the judge.

The Instructions attempt at solving what the law is and how the law should be interpreted, they contain ethical guidelines for the judge.

The goal of Olaus Petri was the interest or the ordinary man. His sympathies lay with the common people, not with the nobility. He saw punishment to be necessary to maintain social peace.

The significance of the Instructions in the defence of the people has always been emphasised. The Instructions underline the obligations of the judge, but also the legal protection of the people as well as social and judicial equality.

The Instructions for a Judge reflect their own time and contain a lot that is out-dated and even conflicting. However, we can find in them something timeless, something that is as essential to judicial practice today as it was centuries ago.

What characterises the Instructions from beginning to end and forms their spirit and the deepest core of their message is an absolute obligation to do the what is right, to serve the truth and in all ways to repel what is wrong.

A good and wise judge is better than a good law, for he can measure everything with equity. But where there is an evil and wrong judge, a good law is of no avail, because he will twist and distort it as he pleases.

The text is mainly based on the writings of Finnish legal historian Heikki Ylikangas.