4 The Courts
The ordinary courts deal with both civil and criminal matters and are organised in 3 tiers. At the bottom are the Town Courts (byretter), of which there are 82 evenly spread across the country (§§ 12-20). Each court has a number of judges fixed by statute ranging from 34 in the Town Court of the municipality of Copenhagen, to one in most provincial courts.
In civil matters, these courts roughly compare with the English county court – the maximum value of the case matter being app. £ 42.000,-. They do, however, exercise probate jurisdiction, and outside the greater Copenhagen area, bankruptcy. They are also responsible for the enforcement of all civil judgments, as well as for the court registers of land, chattel, and marriage settlements, and finally the judge acts as a notary public.
In criminal matters, Town Courts exercise original jurisdiction in nearly all cases, and for this purpose they may consist of either a professional judge sitting with 2 lay judges or only one judge acting alone. Outside the greater Copenhagen area they will hear maritime (i.e. admiralty) cases, and on those occasions the lay members of the court will be drawn from specialist panels.
The middle tier consists of the two High Courts – Eastern and western (Østre and Vestre Landsret) (§§ 4-8 & 10-11). They exercise original jurisdiction only in civil matters specifically referred to them (normally a value of more than app. £ 42.000,-) and in very grave criminal cases. For the latter purpose, the court will consist of 3 judges and a jury of 12.
The High Courts also have appellate jurisdiction over the Town Courts. In those cases, it consists of either 3 judges or 3 judges and 3 lay members, or when the case is maritime, of 3 judges and 2 lay members drawn from a panel of maritime professionals. The total number of judges in the High Courts is 46 and 23 respectively.
When the court is sitting with a lay element, hearings take place at a number of circuit towns of which the courts have 9 and 6 respectively. Lay members must be from the circuit area.
On the same level is the Commercial and Maritime Court of Copenhagen (Sø og Handelsretten i København), which has civil jurisdiction over commercial and maritime casesr including bankruptcies in the greater Copenhagen area (§§ 9- 9a). Its criminal jurisdiction is twofold, namely maritime cases in the Copenhagen area and such commercial matters as are referred to it by individual statutes. The latter consists mainly of prosecutions under the Fair Trading Act (Markedsføringsloven). When hearing criminal cases, the court invariably consists of 1 judge and 2 members drawn from a list of people with relevant professional experience.
The Supreme Court (Højesteret) is exclusively a court of appellate jurisdiction (§§ 2-2a). It ordinarily has 15 judges and sits in divisions of 5 or more judges. However, a committee of 3 judges will decide questions raised by a minor appeals procedure (kære). The court has no lay element in any type of case.
Danish law has a number of special courts and tribunals, two of which may hear criminal cases.
The Special Court of Complaints (the Danish name “Den Særlige Klageret” is equally clumsy )*5 has 3 distinct jurisdictions, namely complaints over members of the judiciary, the revision of criminal cases and removal of a counsel from the defence in a particular case.
In its first capacity, it consists of 1 judge from each of the three levels of courts and they are joined by a practising lawyer and a university professor in law, when the court hears criminal cases. All the members of the court are appointed for a period of 10 years, and in order to secure their independence, they cannot be reappointed.
It is possible to appeal to the Supreme Court from the Court of Complaints, when a judge has been censored. The second special court with criminal responsibilities is the Court of Impeachment (Rigsretten), which on the initiative of the Parliament or the Crown, hears cases concerning the actions of the ministers of the crown in their official capacity. The procedure of the court is governed by the Court of Impeachment Act and the Constitution.
The court has not sat for more than 70 years and is unlikely to sit again. The court has a maximum of 30 members, namely the eldest judges of the Supreme Court and equally many lay members elected by parliament, but who may not themselves be Members of Parliament.