Increased Legal Rights for Victims of Sexual Assault in Iceland

Héraðsdómur Reykjavíkur Reykjavík District Court

Victims of sexual assault in Iceland can now receive information on the proceedings of the police investigation of their case and are permitted to be present at the trial, thanks to legislative amendments passed by Parliament, RÚV reports. A spokesperson from Stígamót, a centre for survivors of sexual violence, says the changes are a step forward but more needs to be done.

“I think this is a turning point and shows that there is will within the system towards victims of violence and there is a strong need for that. As we know, many cases are dismissed and victims are often unhappy with how they are received in the legal system and feel their need for justice is not fulfilled,” Steinunn Gyðu- og Guðjónsdóttir, a spokesperson for Stígamót, stated.

Victims defined as witnesses in their case

Icelandic legislation concerning sexual assault cases is structured in such a way that the victims in such cases are categorised as witnesses rather than parties to the case. This means they have little to no access to information concerning the proceedings of their case and may not be present at court proceedings. Experts and activists have been vocal in their criticism of this system, which was evaluated as lagging being most other Nordic countries when it comes to protecting victims’ rights.

The amendments change victims’ status in their case in several ways. Firstly, they may be present in closed court proceedings concerning their cases or watch them through a stream in the courthouse. Victims also receive increased access to the data of their case during the investigation and their legal rights protector (a lawyer assigned to protect their interests) is permitted to question those who are brought before the court.

Authorities also have additional responsibilities thanks to the amendments, including to inform the victim if a ruling has been made concerning the accused or if the accused has been released from custody.

Length of proceedings is next challenge to tackle

The bill has undergone considerable changes since it was first introduced last year. Steinunn is pleased the voices of Stígamót and the women’s movement have been heeded, but is disappointed that victims are still defined as witnesses in their own cases. This continues to limit their legal rights: they cannot, for example, sue the state if a mistake has been made in their case.

“As we have been seeing in the Court of Appeal, sentences are often being lightened because of how long the investigation has taken but victims do not receive such compensation.”

The procedural time for sexual assault cases can be up to a year and half with the police and just as long once they are in the hands of the prosecution. “The system really needs an injection of manpower and funding to fix that,” Steinunn stated. “This is just the legal status. Now the implementation needs to be fixed.”

Minister of Justice’s Court Appointments Were Illegal: Ruling Upheld by ECHR

Sigríður Andersen.

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.

Minister of Justice Sigríður Andersen Steps Down

Sigríður Andersen.

Pictured above: Sigríður Andersen leaving the press conference today.

Minister of Justice Sigríður Andersen announced minutes ago that she will step down as Minister of Justice until the matter pertaining to the appointment of judges to the Court of Appeal has been resolved. She revealed this turn of events at a press conference in the Ministry of Justice minutes ago.

Sigríður belives her presence will be a disturbance during the handling of the matter, which revolves around her appointment of judges to the Icelandic Court of Appeal. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that the appointment was in violation of Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights which ensures individuals’ right to a fair trial.

Sigríður expressed her belief the ECHR’s decision would be appealed to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Sigríður stated the decision was her own. Prime Minister of Iceland Katrín Jakobsdóttir has stated that the pair spoke together yesterday. Katrín confirmed the decision was made by Sigríður, but that she supports it, and feels that Sigríður is shouldering responsibility for the matter by stepping down.

At this point in time, no decision has been made regarding who will step in for Sigríður as Minister of Justice.

Minister of Justice Will Not Resign Over Court of Human Rights Decision

Minister of Justice Sigríður Andersen.

Minister of Justice Sigríður Andersen sees no reason to resign over the European Court of Human Rights verdict. The court ruled that Iceland violated Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights when Sigríður Andersen appointed judges to the recently established Court of Appeals. The article is meant to ensure individuals’ right to a fair trial.

Minister Sigríður has said the ruling is both unexpected and without precedent. She stated she sees the court’s verdict as a somewhat split opinion. “There are contrasting views which were put forth in the opinions of the majority and the minority. So we’re inspecting the ruling now. It’s quite clear that it can have repercussions all over Europe,” Sigríður stated.

A team from the Ministry of Justice as well as the State Attorney is now investigating the ruling and is considering appealing the decision to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, according to Sigríður. The decisions to appeal must be made within three months.

Sigríður said it’s not a surprise that folks have demanded her resignation. When asked if the verdict should lead her to resignation, “No, I don’t believe the verdict gives cause for that. I remind people and reiterate that the stance of Icelandic courts regarding the legitimacy of the appointments is quite clear. And all three levels of government played a part in the appointment, which was confirmed to be legitimate by the Supreme Court of Iceland,” the Minister stated.

She believes the verdict has no direct legal effect in Iceland. None the less, the Court of Appeal has decided to postpone all cases which were to be handled by the four judges which were affected by the appointment. The cases will be postponed by a week.

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 with 33 votes to 29, with one MP abstaining. Read more of Iceland Review’s coverage yesterday.

Update: The Minister has announced that she will step aside while the matter is being resolved. Read more here.

Appeals Court Appointments Illegal, Says European Court of Human Rights

Minister of Justice Sigríður Andersen.

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 recently established Court of Appeals. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) published the ruling in the case this morning, which states the Icelandic state is to pay the applicant €15,000 ($16,900) in respect of costs and expenses. At least two MPs have called for Justice Minister Sigríður Andersen to resign.

The appointments

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 with 33 votes to 29, with one MP abstaining.

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 (USD 6,800/EUR 5,600) but denied their claim to liability for damages.

Call for resignation

Social Democratic Alliance chairman Logi Már Einarsson and Helga Vala Helgadóttir, chairperson of the Constitutional and Supervisory Committee, say the ECHR’s ruling should prompt Sigríður to resign. Helga Vala called the issue a “complete mess” on the part of the Icelandic government. Logi Már stated the situation is “serious if people can’t trust they are able to have a fair trial.” Logi stated that it’s not yet known what legal effect the ruling will have, but that some believe that the Court of Appeals is not fit to serve its purpose.

Update: In light of the ruling, the Court of Appeals has decided to postpone all cases involving one of the four judges appointed by Sigríður in opposition to the selection committee’s suggestions until next week.

Minister Proposes Anonymity for Sexual Offenders

Minister of Justice Sigríður Andersen.

Minister of Justice Sigríuður Andersen has put forth a bill proposing that rulings of district courts relating to sensitive personal issues will no longer be published online, Kjarninn reports. Such cases would include sexual assault, violence in close relationships, restraining orders, and inheritance. The bill also proposes anonymity be observed in the publishing of convictions in such cases.

The bill would also grant district courts the authority to set rules regarding photography and audio recordings on their premises. The exposition of the bill states the changes are proposed to ensure better privacy.

Icelandic court rulings are currently published online. While anonymity is observed in certain cases, such as when a ruling involves children, or is related to incest or inheritance, the bill proposes extending the policy to cases involving sexual assault, violence in close relationships, and restraining orders.

“In the making of an action plan about the handling of sexual assault cases in the judicial system, there were clear opinions or suggestions that media coverage of sexual offences and their rulings or the handling of the case proved burdensome for victims,” Sigríður stated on morning radio today. “Anonymity is not set in these cases to protect the accused, rather the victim, because who the victims are can often be identified in the rulings and witnesses as well, for example.”

Sigríður added: “I think people should ask themselves whether it should be the role of the government to add to the punishment in this way when men have finished serving their sentence, let’s say 30 years later, that’s it’s still possible to look them up on a publicly available list. Criminal records have simply become public.”