A CLOSER LOOK AT THE COURTS OF DENMARK

THE DANISH LEGAL SYSTEM

The district courts, the high courts and the Supreme Court represent the three basic levels of the Danish legal system, but the Courts of Denmark also comprise a range of other institutions with special functions.

The Danish legal system is based on the so-called two-tier principle, which means that the parties to a case generally have the option of appealing the ruling of one court to a higher instance. The higher court can then either reach the same conclusion (uphold the ruling) or change the ruling.

Most cases begin at district court level with the option of appealing to one of the high courts. If a case was initially heard at district court level, it may, in special cases, be brought before the third and highest instance: the Supreme Court.

The district courts

There are 24 district courts in Denmark. As a general rule, all court cases start in one of the district courts. In special cases, the district court can refer a civil case to the high court if the case has to do with principles of general interest.

Court cases can generally be divided into civil cases and criminal cases. Criminal cases are cases that have been investigated by the police and in which the court must decide whether an individual is guilty and should be punished for committing an offence. Civil cases are cases in which one party wants the court’s help in pursuing a claim against another party or an authority, e.g. a local authority. The cases before the district courts are normally heard by one judge, but a few cases are heard by three judges. In criminal cases in which the prosecution claims punishment by imprisonment, lay judges are also involved.

The enforcement courts and the probate courts are divisions under the district courts. Enforcement courts help enforce claims, e.g. claims for payment according to a court ruling or an instrument of debt. The enforcement courts also hold forced sales of real property.

The probate court handles the administration of estates when the assets of the deceased are to be transferred to heirs or creditors. The probate court also administers insolvency cases such as bankruptcies and applications for debt restructuring.

The high courts

The high courts are the instances of appeal for the district courts. In most cases, a district court ruling can be appealed to one of the two high courts of Denmark: the Western High Court in Viborg, which handles cases from Jutland, or the Eastern High Court in Copenhagen, which takes on cases from the rest of the country. High court cases are normally heard by three judges. In criminal cases, lay judges may also be involved.

The Supreme Court

The highest instance in the Danish legal system is the Supreme Court. Located in Copenhagen, it is a court of appeal dealing with rulings by the high courts and precedent-setting cases from the Maritime and Commercial High Court. If a case is initially heard at high court level or by the Maritime and Commercial High Court, both parties have the right to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. However, if a case was initially heard at district court level and then appealed to the high court, an application must be submitted to the Appeals Permission Board for permission to bring the case before the third instance, i.e. the Supreme Court. Supreme court cases are normally heard by five judges.

Being the highest instance, the Supreme Court must mainly determine, through its rulings, what the legal position should be, and it lays down guidelines on how judges in the district courts and high courts should handle similar cases in the future. The Supreme Court is responsible for creating clarity as to how Denmark’s courts of law should interpret the law, which means that the Supreme Court most often hears precedent-setting cases. The Supreme Court never takes a position on guilt or innocence in criminal cases: only on the sentence.

The Maritime and Commercial High Court

The Maritime and Commercial High Court in Copenhagen is a special court that only handles certain types of cases. The court is divided into two divisions: the legal division and the probate division. The legal division deals with international commercial cases, competition cases and cases about patents, designs or trademarks. The probate division handles all cases from the Greater Copenhagen Area relating to bankruptcy, debt restructuring, reconstruction and the compulsory winding up of public and private limited companies.

In the rest of the country, such cases are handled by the probate divisions of the district courts.

The judgments passed by the Maritime and Commercial High Court may be appealed to the high court or the Supreme Court depending on whether the case is precedent-setting or not.

The Land Registration Court

The Land Registration Court is located in Hobro, but in practice all registration of property has been digital since 2009. In Denmark, registration of property involves the registering of all rights to real property and other assets. Such rights include rights to an owner-occupied home or a charge, e.g. in a car or in the assets of a company. About 75 % of all property registration cases are processed automatically in less than five seconds, whereas the remainder, typically more complicated applications for registration, are processed manually in the Land Registration Court.

THE STEPS OF A CASE FROM DISTRICT COURT TO THE SUPREME COURT

DISTRICT COURT

In August 2013, a man was charged in district court with violating the gun laws because he had bought and kept a loaded pump gun in his home without a licence. The prosecutor argued that he should be convicted under the particularly serious weapons offence section of the Criminal Code rather than of a simple violation of the Offensive Weapons Act because there was an imminent risk that the weapon would be used, thereby bringing people in danger. The district court ruled that the man could only be convicted of violating the Offensive Weapons Act, and, accordingly, the judge sentenced him to six months’ imprisonment.

HIGH COURT

The prosecution appealed the case to the Western High Court. The High Court reached the conclusion that the conditions had been fulfilled for sentencing him under the particularly serious weapons offence section. The High Court emphasised the importance of the accused’s previous arson conviction and the fact that the weapon was left loaded in his home. At the same time, the accused kept two illegal air rifles in his home, and he had fired the pump gun when intoxicated. In October 2013, the High Court passed judgment, finding for the prosecution and raising the sentence to one year’s imprisonment.

THE SUPREME COURT

The accused, who had now been convicted in two instances, was given permission by the Appeals Permission Board to appeal the judgment of the High Court to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court took into account that the accused had no connection with any criminal environment and that the previous conviction concerned arson of an abandoned house. The Supreme Court concluded that there were no grounds for applying the particularly serious weapons offence section of the Criminal Code and convicted the accused of violating the Offensive Weapons Act, just as the district court did. The Supreme Court thus upheld the sentence of six months’ imprisonment set by the district court in June 2014.

The example is taken from a ruling given by the Supreme Court on 26 June 2014.

DENMARK IS DIVIDED INTO 24 JUDICIAL DISTRICTS

Map of Denmark with the position of the 24 judical districts

Map of Greenland and the Faroe Islands with the position of the judical districts

The Courts of Greenland

The Courts of Greenland consists of four district courts, the Court of Greenland and the High Court of Greenland. Depending on the type of case, either one of the four district courts or the Court of Greenland hears cases as the first instance, whereas the High Court of Greenland hears cases as the second instance. Decisions made by the High Court of Greenland may be brought before the Supreme Court subject to the permission of the Appeals Permission Board.

The Court of the Faroe Islands

The Court of the Faroe Islands is located in Tórshavn, and its judicial district comprises all the Faroe Islands. The Court of the Faroe Islands hears the same types of cases as the district courts of Denmark. Rulings made by the Court of the Faroe Islands can be appealed to the Eastern High Court.

The Appeals Permission Board

The Appeals Permission Board processes applications for permission to bring cases before the Supreme Court, i.e. a leave to appeal to the third instance. The Board also processes applications for permission to appeal cases that are normally only heard in one instance, along with complaints about rejections of applications for free legal aid.

The Special Court of Indictment and Revision


Court room in the Western High Court in Viborg.

The Special Court of Indictment and Revision considers requests for a new trial in criminal cases. It also handles dismissal cases and disciplinary cases relating to judges and other jurists employed by the courts. Additionally, the Court processes cases in which a defence counsel has been excluded from a criminal case.

The External Activity Review Board

Any judge must apply to the External Activity Review Board for permission to take a secondary job with a fixed income, e.g. the office of chairman of a council or committee. The Board registers how much money judges make and can enforce sanctions against judges not complying with the rules on such external activities. Each year, the Board publishes a list of such activities so the information is available to the public. The Supreme Court performs secretarial duties for the External Activity Review Board.


The highest instance in the Danish legal system is the Supreme Court in Copenhagen.

The Judicial Appointments Council

The Judicial Appointments Council is an independent council that handles applications for vacant positions as judges. The only exception is the President of the Supreme Court, who is appointed by the Court’s own judges. The Council makes a recommendation to the Minister for Justice and can only nominate one candidate for each position. The Danish Court Admini stration performs secretarial duties for the Judicial Appointments Council.

The Danish Court Administration

The Danish Court Administration is an independent agency in charge of administering the Courts of Denmark. The Administration’s Board of Directors consists of representatives of the court staff, users, the universities and the Danish employment council. The Board of Directors appoints a managing director to be in charge of day-to-day affairs, court budgets, and the allocation of resources to the courts. Formally and in terms of funding, the Administration is an agency under the Ministry of Justice, but the Minister cannot change decisions made by the Administration.


THE COURTS OF DENMARK

Supreme Court including Courts of Greenland, Western High Court, Eastern High Court and Maritime and Commercial High Court. Western High Court and Eastern High Court include District courts. Western High Court includes Land Registration Court and Eastern High Court includes Court of the Faroe Islands. Other authorities are Appeals Permission Board, Special Court of Indictment and Revision, Judicial Appointments Council, External Activities Review Board and The Danish Court Administration

This page forms part of the publication "A CLOSER LOOK AT THE COURTS OF DENMARK" as chapter 3 of 10.
Version no. 1.0, 2015-11-18

© The Courts of Denmark 2015.

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