The term ‘sources of law’ means the sources where legal rules are to be found. Some sources of law are national, whereas others are international. Some sources are written, some unwritten. A summary of all sources of law is set out below.
The most important national sources of law are written laws. The term ‘laws’ should in this context be interpreted broadly as meaning the Constitution, ordinary acts (also known as Acts of Parliament) , decrees, whether issued by the President of the Republic, the Council of Ministers or Ministries, and legal rules issued by lower-ranking authorities. Legal rules issued by lower-ranking authorities and decrees may be issued only under the authority of the Constitution or an ordinary act, which normally specifies the State body or the authority empowered to issue them.
In circumstances where there is no written law Chapter 1, Section 11 of the Code of Procedure provides for custom to be the source of law. For custom to be binding, it must not be inequitable. The rule of custom dates back a long way and the current notion of it is somewhat non-specific. ‘Custom’ today chiefly means certain established practices which occur for example in commercial activities. Because regulations provided for in written law are now fairly comprehensive, custom is nowadays only relatively rarely of any importance as a source of law. In some areas, however, such as law of contract, customary law does have a fairly strong position even now.
Preparatory legislative work and court decisions are also sources of law. Preparatory legislative work provides information on the legislator’s intention and for that reason such documents are used in the interpretation of legislation. Of the various court decisions, the most important as sources of law are those of the highest courts, namely the Supreme Court and the Supreme Administrative Court. The decisions of those two courts are called precedents. Although precedents are not legally binding, they have great importance in practice. The decisions of other courts may also be important as sources of law. Indeed, in circumstances in which the decision of a lower court is final, the practice of the lower courts may in actual fact be of great practical importance.
Jurisprudence, general legal principles and factual arguments are also national sources of law. The specific task of jurisprudence is to research the content of the legal system – the interpretation and classification of legal rules – and for that reason it too is significant as a source of law. General legal principles and practical arguments can also have significance as sources of law. As will be shown below, the position of these sources in the hierarchy of sources of law is, however, weaker than that of the other sources referred to above.
International agreements and other international obligations to which Finland is committed are binding sources of law in Finland. The practice of the international bodies which apply such agreements also has significance as a source of law. One example of a source of law which belongs to this category is the Convention of the Council of Europe on Human Rights, and the practice of the European Court of Human Rights is relevant to the interpretation of the Convention.
As a Member of the European Union, Finland is of course also bound by Union law. regulations and directives are among the most important legislation of the European Communities. Regulations are directly applicable in all Member States whereas directives must be implemented in Member States. Preliminary work for the implementing legislation may therefore also have some significance in how Community law is interpreted, although that significance is clearly far less than it is in the case of preparatory work for national legislation. Other EU regulatory instruments are also binding on Finland to the same extent as they are binding upon other Member States. The rulings of the Court of Justice of the European Communities are also of significance as a source of law because they are part of the body of Union law.
Finnish sources of law are customarily divided into strongly binding, weakly binding and admissible sources. Acts and custom are strongly binding sources. They therefore occupy the highest position in the hierarchy. It is the official duty of the law enforcement authorities to apply them; to set them aside is deemed misconduct in office. The hierarchy of national legislation is as follows:
Weakly binding sources of law, namely those one rank lower in the hierarchy, comprise preparatory legislative work and court decisions. Disregard for these sources does not result in a sanction for misconduct in office against the enforcement authority, but the likelihood of a decision being changed in a higher court increases. The admissible sources of law category comprises jurisprudence, general legal principles and factual arguments. Admissible sources of law are not binding but they may be used and can bolster an argument and thereby strengthen the grounds on which a decision is based.
International agreements have the same hierarchical ranking as the instrument used to implement them in Finland. Thus, if an international agreement is implemented by an act, the provisions of that agreement have the hierarchical ranking in Finland of the provisions of an act. If however an international obligation is implemented pursuant to a decree, its provisions have the hierarchical rank of the provisions of a decree. Implementing provisions are therefore analogous to national provisions of the same hierarchical rank.
In accordance with doctrine on the supremacy of European Union law, Union law takes precedence over national law. Therefore where a national provision and a binding provision of Union law are incompatible with each other, the provision of Union law will have precedence, even over our national Constitution.
Finland is one of the dualist system countries in which international Agreements do not directly become binding domestically until they have been specifically implemented domestically. The Constitution states that international obligations falling within the scope of legislation are to be implemented by an act. Other provisions are to be implemented by decree. An international obligation enters into force domestically at the time provided for in the implementing provisions. International agreements which are binding on Finland and the provisions implementing them are published in the Treaty Series of the Statute Book of Finland.
Under the Constitution, legislative power in Finland is vested in Parliament. Parliament enacts all ordinary acts and also determines amendments to the Constitution. Acts or basic laws enacted by Parliament may vest certain other bodies with the authority to issue legal rules on given matters. On the basis of such authorisation the President of the Republic, the Government and a Ministry may issue decrees. Where there is no provision specifying who is to issue a decree, it is to be issued by the Government. A lower-ranking authority may also in certain circumstances be authorised by an act to lay down legal rules on given matters where there are specific grounds relating to the subject-matter of the rules concerned and where the material significance of those rules does not require that they be laid down by an act or a decree. The scope of such authorisation must also be clearly defined. No bodies other than those referred to above have authority to issue generally binding legal rules.
In order for legislation to be enacted in the form of an act, it must be presented to Parliament for consideration as a Government proposal or as an initiative by a Member of Parliament. Government proposals are prepared within the Ministries and are subsequently discussed by them at the Government plenary session. After that, a decision on bringing the Government proposal before Parliament is made at the Presidential session.
In Parliament a Government proposal is first the subject of a preliminary debate, after which it is assigned to a Parliamentary Committee for consideration. The Committee hears experts and drafts a report on the Government proposal. The matter is then referred to the plenary session of Parliament where the report of the Parliamentary Committee acts as a basis for discussion of the matter. The decision to pass bills is taken at a plenary session of Parliament in two readings. Parliament may pass a bill without amending it, amend it or reject it. The final power of decision on the fate of a bill therefore lies with Parliament. Ordinary bills are passed in Parliament by means of a simple majority, whereas an amendment to the Constitution requires a stipulated majority. Once a bill has been passed by Parliament, it is forwarded to the President of the Republic for approval. An act enters into force at the time specified in its provision on entry into force, but in any event does not enter into force before it has been published in the Statute Book of Finland.
Decrees issued by the President of the Republic, the Government or a Ministry are prepared in the Ministry which deals with the matter concerned. Where presidential decrees are concerned, the President of the Republic makes a decision to issue a decree acting on proposals presented by the Government. The issuing of government decrees is determined at government plenary sessions, and the issuing of ministerial decrees is determined by the ministry concerned. All decrees are published in the Statute Book of Finland. A decree enters into force at the time specified in the decree itself, but in any event does not enter into force before the decree has been published in the Statute Book.
Legal rules laid down by lower-ranking authorities, which in practice are usually called either decisions or rules and regulations, are prepared by the authority concerned, which also decides on their adoption. Regulations adopted by lower-ranking authorities enter into force at the time provided for in them and are published in the Compendium of Rules and Regulations of the authority concerned.
The three following general rules are the ones principally used for the resolution of conflicts of laws by bodies applying the law:
The constitutionality of legislation is monitored in Finland primarily by means of an advance monitoring system. For that reason there is no separate Constitutional Court in Finland. The task of the Constitutional Law Committee is to give opinions on the constitutionality of bills and other matters submitted to it for consideration, and on compatibility with international human rights agreements. The underlying principle is therefore that legislation drawn up in Parliament must comply with the Constitution and international agreements on human rights.
Where there is still a conflict between the Constitution and other provisions, an attempt is made to resolve it by means of interpretation. Thus, efforts are made to interpret legislation and other provisions so as to remove the conflict with the Constitution. Where international human rights obligations are concerned, the Constitutional Law Committee has espoused the principle according to which, where alternative interpretations can be justified, the alternative to be adopted should be the one which furthers the realisation of provisions on human rights, in other words the alternative that is deemed to be human-rights-friendly.
In the event that interpretation cannot remove a conflict, the Constitution also provides for several means for constitutionality to be reviewed after the fact. Section 106 of the Constitution states that in the event that the application of a provision contained in an Act in a matter before a court would clearly be in conflict with a provision contained in the Constitution, the court must give precedence to the provision in the Constitution. Section 107 of the Constitution provides that where a provision in a Decree or other source of law which ranks below an act in the hierarchy is in conflict with the Constitution or an act, it may not be applied by a court or other body.
Further information on the legislative process is available on the web site of the Ministry of Justice at (Law and society – Ministry of Justice). All acts and decrees in force in Finland can be consulted on the on-line National Legislation Database, as can legal rules laid down by lower-ranking bodies; the address of the database is (FINLEX). The database also includes all government proposals since 1992 and the case-law of the supreme courts. Information on government proposals and early documents in the parliamentary hearing of bills is also available from the Parliament website at (Finnish Parliament).
Last update: 02-05-2005