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.

Icelandic Court of Appeal Case before ECHR’s Grand Chamber

Sigríður Andersen.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) held a Grand Chamber hearing in the case of Guðmundur Andri Ástráðsson v. Iceland today. The case concerns the former’s allegation that the new Icelandic Court of Appeal (Landsréttur), which upheld his conviction in April 2018, was not established by law, having regard to irregularities in the appointment of one of the judges sitting on the bench; in 2017, then Minister of Justice Sigríður Andersen oversaw the appointment of four judges to the Court who were not on a list of 15 candidates initially selected by an evaluation committee.

In Brief

As noted in a press release from the Grand Chamber this morning, in 2017, Guðmundur Andri Ástráðsson was convicted of driving without a valid licence and of being under the influence of narcotics. He appealed the decision to the new Court of Appeal (established in January 2018). Judge Arnfríður Einarsdóttir was one of the judges assigned to Guðmundur’s case. Arguing that there had been irregularities in the procedure for her appointment, Guðmundur requested that she withdraw. His motion was rejected.

Guðmundur appealed the case to the Supreme Court in April 2018, but the court dismissed his appeal a month later, finding that despite flaws in the procedure, there was not a sufficient reason to doubt that Guðmundur had had a fair trial before independent and impartial judges. On May 31, Guðmundur appealed the decision to the European Court of Human Rights.

In its Chamber judgment on March 12, 2019, the ECHR held (by five votes to two) that there had been a violation of Article 6 section 1 (right to a tribunal established by law) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Chamber found that the process by which Arnfríður Einarsdóttir had been appointed to the Icelandic Court of Appeal had amounted to a flagrant breach of the applicable domestic rules: “It had been to the detriment of the confidence that the judiciary in a democratic society must inspire in the public and had contravened the very essence of the principle that a tribunal must be established by law.”

On September 9, 2019 the Grand Chamber Panel accepted the government’s request that the case be referred to the Grand Chamber. That hearing began this morning at 9.15 am and concluded at 11.45 am. Many Icelanders were in attendance, among them Sigríður Andersen, former Minister of Justice (who resigned following the ECHR ruling last year), Jón Finnbjörnssn (one of the judges on the Icelandic Court of Appeal on hiatus following the ECHR verdict), and parliamentarian Helga Vala Helgadóttir.

State of Paralysis

In an opening statement this morning, State’s Attorney Fanney Rós Þorsteinsdóttir said that the Icelandic Court of Appeal could no longer endure a “state of paralysis.” Arguing on behalf of the Government, Fanney stated that the ECHR should, based on the facts, conclude that the state of paralysis should be resolved: the Icelandic government had not violated the rights of Guðmundur Á. Ástráðsson when Icelandic Court of Appeal judge Arnfríður Einarsdóttir upheld his conviction.

Lilja Alfreðsdóttir is Government’s Most Popular Minister

Lilja Alfreðsdóttir is one of the people nominated for Person of the Year.

A new survey has found that Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, Minister of Education, Science and Culture, is Iceland’s most popular cabinet minister. Stundin notes that no other minister comes close to Lilja’s rating: 67.6% approval, 9.6% disapproval.

Among her recent initiatives, Lilja has proposed the introduction of a bill outlining measures against sexual harassment in sports and youth groups, has suggested a restructuring of the Icelandic school system, and has introduced paid internships for student teachers.

The next most popular minister, with 43.2% approval and 19% disapproval, is Þórdís Kolbrún R. Gylfadóttir, the Minister of Tourism, Industry and Innovation who also temporarily serving as Minister of Justice. Þórdís Kolbrún took over as Minister of Justice in March, when Sigríður Á. Andersen resigned from the position after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that her appointments to the Court of Appeal had been unlawful and impeded individuals’ rights to a fair trial. The survey was taken shortly after Sigríður resigned and so it perhaps comes as no surprise that she was found to be respondents’ least favorite minister, with an approval rating of 13.8% and a disapproval rating of 65.8%.

Bjarni Benediktsson, the Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs has the next highest disapproval rating, 51.6%, although he still has an approval rating of 25%.

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir had a fairly even approval to disapproval rating: 38.6% said they were happy with her performance; 34.4% said they were dissatisfied.

The survey was conducted by Maskína from March 15 to 27. There were 848 respondents.

 

 

Iceland to Request Review of Human Rights Court Ruling

Sigríður Andersen.

The Icelandic state will request that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) review its ruling that appointments to the Court of Appeals constitute a violation of human rights. Minister of Justice Kolbrún Þórdís Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir announced the decision at a cabinet meeting today. The ECHR ruling, published last month, has put into question the authority of Iceland’s newly-established Court of Appeals, which took effect in January 2018.

“We have examined different facets of this important issue in the last weeks,” stated the Minister of Justice. “After that examination, I consider it proper to request a review from the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. I consider it essential to take this path in light of the importance of the matter in this country. I will continue to explore other aspects of the issue but at this stage no further decision will be made.”

The ECHR ruled last month that Iceland’s government violated Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights in the appointment of judges to the newly-formed Court of Appeals (Landsréttur). The Article outlines individuals’ right to a fair trial. Minister of Justice Sigríður Andersen (above), who received heavy criticism for failing to follow the recommendations of a selection committee in her nominations to the court, resigned from her position following the ruling.

The ECHR’s ruling does not only affect Iceland, rather sets precedent throughout Europe. Whether the Grand Court decides to review the decision or not should be known within a few months.

Þórdís Kolbrún Gylfadóttir New Minister of Justice

Pictured above: Iceland’s cabinet. Þórdís Kolbrún sits far left. Photo: Golli.

The current Minister of Tourism, Industry, and Innovation Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir will add the title Minister of Justice to her duties. Þórdís will take on the post temporarily, replacing Sigríður Andersen after she stepped down in the wake of a decision by the European Court of Human Rights. The court ruled that Sigríður’s appointments to the Court of Appeal had been unlawful and impeded individuals’ rights to a fair trial.

This turn of events was revealed earlier today after a closed meeting was held by MPs of the Independence Party.

Þórdís Kolbrún is a member of the Independence Party and has been a member of Parliament for the Northwest constituency since 2016. She has held her role as Minister of Tourism, Industry, and Innovation since January 2017, when she became the youngest woman to became an Icelandic minister, at the age of 29. Þórdís Kolbrún is vice chairperson of the Independence Party and replaces her fellow party member Sigríður Andersen.

New Minister of Justice Chosen Today

Sigríður Andersen

A cabinet meeting will be held at 4.00pm this afternoon to decide on a new Minister of Justice, RÚV reports. The post was vacated yesterday when Sigríður Andersen announced she would be stepping down from the position, following a European Court of Human Rights ruling that her appointments to the Icelandic Court of Appeal violated Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, meant to ensure individuals’ right to a fair trial.

No such thing as “temporary leave”

Though Sigríður described her departure as temporary leave, Professor of Political Science Eiríkur Bergmann says there is no precedent for such an action in Alþingi. “A minister must be appointed to office by presidential decree. Once that happens [this afternoon], Sigríður Andersen is just as much not a minister as everyone else who is not a minister.” In order to return to the post, Sigríður would need to be reappointed officially.

Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson stated yesterday that it was most likely the position would be filled by a current minister or an Independence Party MP. Bjarni stated that it wasn’t out of the question for Sigríður to return to the post. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir said it was too early to say whether Sigríður would return to the ministry, but previously expressed her support of her decision to step down.

Katrín and Bjarni both expressed support for appealing the European Court of Human Rights’ decision, as the outcome is consequential for the government.

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.”