The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has confirmed its ruling that Iceland violated Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, meant to ensure individuals’ right to a fair trial, in the appointment of judges to the Court of Appeal. The Icelandic government had appealed the ruling last year, but it has now been unanimously upheld by all 17 of the ECHR’s Grand Chamber judges. This is the ECHR’s final ruling in the case and it cannot be appealed.
The verdict, published yesterday morning, emphasises the importance of the judiciary’s independence and asserts that former Minister of Justice Sigríður Andersen’s appointment of four judges to the court breached the procedure established by Icelandic law. Sigríður did not give sufficient reasoning for appointing different judges from those that had been selected by a selection committee.
Undermined Procedure and Failed to Heed Advice
Sigríður’s appointments “had raised serious fears of undue interference in the judiciary and had thus tainted the legitimacy of the whole procedure,” according to the ruling, “especially since the Minister belonged to one of the political parties composing the majority in the coalition government, by whose votes alone her proposal had been adopted in Parliament.”
“Lastly, the Minister’s failure to comply with the relevant rules was all the more serious as she had been reminded of her legal obligations on a number of occasions by the legal advisers in her own Ministry, by the Chairman of the Evaluation Committee and by the ad hoc Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Justice,” the ruling continues.
Ruling Not Legally Binding, Says Current Minister of Justice
Iceland’s current Minister of Justice Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir stated that the ECHR’s ruling is not legally binding and it is not necessary for Icelandic authorities to respond to it in any way. According to Áslaug, the appointments to the Appeal Court were legal according to Icelandic law. The ruling will be taken seriously but it is unlikely that the case will be reopened, she stated.
A Brief Overview
Iceland’s Court of Appeals (Landsréttur) was established on January 1, 2018, as a new mid-tier court between district courts and the Supreme Court of Iceland. Minister of Justice Sigríður Á. Andersen received heavy criticism from opposition MPs for failing to follow the recommendations of a selection committee in her nominations of judges to the new court. In March 2018, opposition MPs put forth a motion of no-confidence against the minister, which was voted down by a margin of four votes.
The four aspiring Court of Appeals judges whose nominations were passed over by the minister have all sued the state for compensation and damages. The Supreme Court has ruled two of them be compensated ISK 700,000 ($6,800/€5,600) but denied their claim to liability for damages.
On March 12, 2019 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the appointments overseen by Sigríður constituted a violation of Article 6 Section 1 (right to a tribunal established by law) of the European Convention on Human Rights. Sigríður resigned as Minister of Justice the following day. On September 9, 2019 the Grand Chamber Panel accepted the Icelandic government’s request that the case be referred to the ECHR’s Grand Chamber that has now issued its ruling, discussed above.
Case Could Set a Precedent
It is quite rare for the European Court of Human to accept requests for appeals to its Grand Chamber: RÚV reports that just over 5% of such requests have been approved. The fact this case concerning Iceland’s Appeal Court was accepted suggests it is considered an important case that could set a precedent for others in the future.