modern dress and ancient traditions mark icelands legal system

It can give an interesting social portrait to work as a court journalist in Iceland, particularly after 11 years abroad.

It can give an interesting social portrait to work as a court journalist in Iceland, particularly after 11 years abroad.

Let’s start with the police.

Icelandic police cars remind one a bit of toy cars. Not because they’re small — they’re not — but because they’re quite colourful compared to Canadian cruisers.

Letters and stripes in blue, red, orange and yellow decorate the white base, so when one approaches you, there is no chance you can take it for any other car.

The officers themselves are, for the most part, a friendly bunch, and though stern on duty, they often are quick to smile, unlike Canadian police whom I’ve often suspected of fighting hard to keep their faces expressionless.

Perhaps this is the reason many of those Icelanders I questioned on the issue believe Icelandic police are more humane than their counterparts in other countries.

Whether that’s true or not, I cannot verify.

But the fact they have no guns must be one factor in this image Icelanders have of their officers — a bit reminiscent of the British Bobby.

Only about 20 police officers in Iceland carry guns, and only do so on a special order from the federal police chief’s office.

Members of the special troop, colloquially called Víkingasveitin, or the Viking Troop, normally work as territorial officers, but if for example a man were to hold his ex-wife hostage, or if someone is threatening suicide with a dangerous weapon, the Viking Troop officers leave their work as territorial officers, don their guns and rush to the scene.

This troop’s services are free of charge to the police jurisdictions, while it costs money to borrow a territorial cop for something like a large dance.

Recently, the border guards were given guns as well (and gossip has it some of them are very uncomfortable carrying them even after rigorous training).

I’m unfamiliar with whether crime is generally higher or lower than that of Canada or the Yukon, but I do know that a murder is committed in Iceland on average every 18 months, and that is far less than the Yukon’s numbers, even when you don’t consider the fact that in Iceland there are 300,000 people, as opposed to the Yukon’s 30,000.

As a fairly experienced Canadian court reporter, I got a bit of a shock the first time I attended Icelandic court.

It all seems much more relaxed than in Canada.

While the lawyers and the judges are all equally groomed as in the Yukon, and likewise dress in black gowns, the court reporter and assistants are frequently dressed in jeans — clean jeans, but jeans nonetheless.

No barrier exists between the gallery and the court and photographers may take pictures inside the courtroom as soon as the proceedings are over.

The first thing that happens in criminal proceedings is that the accused sits in front of the judge and tells him or her what happened on the day in question.

In my experience, Icelandic court cases take less time than Canadian ones, and perhaps this is why Icelandic courts can wrap up manslaughter court cases in a few hours or days.

There is never a jury in Iceland.

The lawyers already know the story, and the accused has to be a pretty experienced liar to be able to sit there for up to four hours, with all his friends and family (those not called to bear witness, of course) watching him or her, and answering direct questions from the lawyers and judge or judges.

Following the accused’s answers, witnesses are called, just as in Canadian court, but they sit at a desk facing the judge and turn their backs entirely to the gallery.

They then answer the questions Crown, defence lawyers and the judge or judges ask of them, as in Canada.

But they can refuse to answer questions if they don’t like what they’re being asked, and they don’t have to explain why they don’t want to answer that question.

When police is called as witnesses in Canada, they usually attend in uniform or in a suit.

In Iceland, they arrive in sweaters and jeans — shaved and with their hair combed, but otherwise no different than if they were going to the grocery store.

In fact, I’ve seen one in his slippers.

And at a court case I attended recently, an EMS attendant looked more like a gangster on his way to a night club than a professional attending territorial court.

His bleached blonde hair was carefully messy; he wore ripped designer jeans and a sleeveless shirt, showing off both bulging muscles and large tattoos.

But though I’ve just painted a colourful and relaxed picture of law in Iceland, this does not mean I live in a childish country.

Iceland has one of the oldest law systems in the world, and many of our laws are based on the book of Grágás, a compendium of Icelandic law written in the 11th century.

Our oldest laws still in use stem from 1275, and order church owners (who were also land owners) to rebuild and re-sanctify a church if it burns down.

But if only a part of it burns, or some walls rot and have to be replaced, then re-sanctification is optional.

Several other laws stem from 1281.

One of them orders people to build a fence around their hay if they happen to store it over the winter on someone else’s land.

Hay must also be clearly marked — otherwise, the owner of the land is legally entitled to help himself to it.

Interestingly, the oldest law on hunting in Iceland bans hunting golden plover in other people’s land.

It’s been hundreds of years since Icelanders last ate a golden plover. Though the bird is considered a delicacy in French cuisine, it is nearly sacred to Icelanders.

Why?

Because it heralds spring. It is often the first migrant bird that shows up at the end of winter, and still today, the first sightings of it make the front pages on all the newspapers and are one of the first three or four news reports on national television’s newscasts.

The most difficult part about these laws is that they, of course, are written in the Icelandic that was spoken at that time.

However, the ancient language is still far easier for Icelanders to understand than Shakespeare’s English is for many Canadians.