The role of the courts is to address disputes between parties and to determine whether individuals, legal persons or public parties have been in breach of law. There are two judicial levels in Iceland, i.e. the district court and the Supreme Court. All cases go first for resolution to the district court, referred to as the lower judicial level. Subject to certain conditions, the conclusions by the district courts may be appealed to a higher judicial level, i.e. the Supreme Court, whose conclusions are final.
Parallel to the district courts and the Supreme Court, Iceland has two special courts, i.e. the Court of Impeachment and the Labor Court. The Court of Impeachment only addresses cases pertaining to alleged offences by government ministers in the opinion of the Icelandic parliament, Althingi. The role of the Labor Court is to pass judgments in legal disputes between the social partners on grounds of the Act on Trade Unions and Industrial Disputes.
The district courts
The number of district courts in Iceland is eight, each operating in separate districts in Iceland. The courts are the District Court of Reykjavík, the District Court of Reykjanes, the District Court of Western Iceland, the District Court of the Westfjords, the District Court of Northwest Iceland, the District Court of Northeast Iceland, the District Court of East Iceland and the District Court of South Iceland.
The personnel of each district court consists, among others, of judges, assistants to the judges, court secretaries and office staff. One of the judges of the relevant court is the appointed chief judge of the court. In instances where the number of judges is three or more they elect one from amongst their group to preside. In the instance of there being one judge, he/she will be appointed as the chief judge of the said court. The chief judges of the district courts are in charge of the courts’ operation and are responsible for their activities. The Judicial Council is the primary administrative body of the district courts and operates on grounds of the provisions of the Act on the Judiciary.
The main role of the district courts is to ensure that everyone receives fair and just treatment by an independent court of law. The judges shall be independent in their work; they shall abide only by law and render argued and comprehensible judgments within the time limits as provided for by law. Case procedure by a district court is public, which means that the general public may be present during sessions of the court and to follow the activities of the courts. According to the principal rule of public case procedure before a court, judgments shall principally be published. The Judicial Council has decided that the disclosure of judgments shall be in the form of publication on the district courts’ website according to further rules thereon.
The district courts should furthermore promote trust and increased knowledge by the general public regarding the activities of the judiciary and the rule of law. The district courts therefore place much emphasis on highly competent personnel, efficiency, practicality and on the dissemination of information to the general public.
The activities of the district courts are highly diverse. Cases brought to court are categorized in general terms into 30 groups of cases or type of cases. The most extensive categories are criminal and civil cases.
Criminal cases are filed by the prosecution on behalf of the state against individuals or legal persons on grounds of alleged culpable conduct by them. The prosecutorial power is held by the chiefs of police, the Office of the National Commissioner of Police, the Office of the District Prosecutor and the Director of Public Prosecutions. Criminal cases are filed by means of an indictment and it is the responsibility of the prosecution to obtain evidence and to prove the guilt of the relevant indicted person.
Civil suits address disputes over rights and duties between individuals or legal persons or against the state or other public bodies. The parties in a civil suit can thus be individuals, organizations, institutions or the Icelandic state.
The factor that by en large separates civil cases and criminal cases is the fact that the prosecutorial power cannot be a party to civil cases. Parties may, however, submit a civil claim in criminal cases provided certain conditions are met.
It is up to the individuals, organizations or institutions that launch the relevant civil suit to determine what claims are made in the case, as well as obtaining and submitting evidence in support of their rights.
Civil suits begin with a summons being issued and the case being filed in court. Upon filing of a case in court the person filing the case must pay a special filing fee, ranging from ISK 15,000 to ISK 250,000 depending on the amount for which such legal action is launched.
Subject to certain conditions being met, the conclusions by the district courts may be appealed to the Supreme Court.