Statssekretær Elsbeth S. Tronstads innlegg på justiskonferansen "Ensuring cross-border justice for all in the EU: sharing practices and experiences from the ground".
Minister Žitňanská, Deputy Director-General Francisco Fonseca Morillo, Director of the Agency for Fundamental Rights Mr O'Flaherty, ladies and gentlemen.
It is a great honour for me to address this conference on access to justice in the European Union. Although Norway is not a member of the Union, it is greatly affected by all that happens in the EU.
As you may know, Norway contributes to economic and social development in 15 European countries through the EEA and Norway Grants. And this conference is founded by Norway grants. We hope to soon sign an agreement on the use of these grants in Slovakia for the period up to 2021.
I was here in Slovakia, in Kosice, a year ago, participating at a conference supported by EEA grants on cross border cooperation, discussing several of the same important and interesting subjects on the agenda here today.
There is no doubt that the EU's priorities in the area of justice and home affairs largely coincide with those of Norway. Challenges facing EU member states relating to cross-border crime, illegal immigration and managing streams of refugees apply to Norway as well. Therefore, Norway is associated with the EU justice and home affairs cooperation through various agreements. The most important of these is the Schengen Agreement where we fully participate.
Now I would like to say a few words about access to justice in Norway.
I am proud to say that Norway was recently rated the second best country in the world in the World Justice Project Rule of Law index (20 October 2016).
The main reason for Norway's high rating is its well-functioning legal system. This includes transparency of the judiciary, the absence of corruption, and the fact that all our citizens have the opportunity to bring a legal dispute before a court in a timely manner.
But access to justice means more than being able to have your case heard in a court of law. The way you are treated by the police and the way your case is handled by the prosecuting authority are equally important.
In other words, ensuring real access to justice requires quality throughout the whole justice chain.
I would also like to emphasise the importance of the independence of the Norwegian Prosecuting Authority and our courts of justice. This independence protects all citizens against arbitrary decisions and abuses by other branches of state power.
A key feature of all states governed by rule of law is that both the prosecuting authority and the courts are free from political control and interference. To ensure greater independence from the executive and legislative powers, Norway has set up an independent body for the administration of the courts, the Norwegian Courts Administration.
And to ensure that no one has any doubt about the impartiality of a judge in a case, there is a register of judges' extra-judicial activities. This lists honorary posts and investments etc. that a judge may have alongside his or her duties as a judge. The purpose of the register to ensure full openness.
Moreover, the public, and therefore the press, has free admission to court hearings. This encourages criticism and control, and thus promotes sound administration of justice. It also keeps the general public well informed about the legal system and the way it is applied.
The Supervisory Committee for Judges was established in November 2002. This is an administrative, collegiate body that handles complaints regarding judges. This serves to ensure public confidence in judges.
We consider it essential to have a system that ensures access to courts for all our citizens, regardless of who they are, where they live or what their financial situation is. In almost all criminal cases, anyone charged with an offence can choose a lawyer to represent them, and the costs are covered by the state. It is only in minor cases (such as driving offences) that a lawyer is not provided by the state.
Citizens who have a low income can also get legal aid,covered by the state, in civil matters. In certain civil cases, all citizens are entitled to legal aid regardless of their income. For example in cases where the child protection services are involved, cases regarding compensation for wrongful prosecution, and cases where an application for asylum has been denied.
In order to be able to exercise your rights, you must know about them. All Norwegian acts and most of our regulations are published on Lovdata's website. Lovdata is a foundation that was established in 1981 by the Ministry of Justice and the Faculty of Law at the University of Oslo. Non-subscribers can access the website free of charge, and can easily find relevant legal information. Decisions from the Supreme Court are also published on this website.
The Norwegian parliament – the Storting – has set timeframes for both civil and criminal cases. These timeframes are usually met, and in a European context the length of our court proceedings is considered to be short.
Looking ahead, we are in the process of establishing a system for electronic communication between the parties and the court before, during and after court proceedings. We are confident this will both enhance access to justice and increase efficiency.
So, why am I telling you about the Norwegian system? My intention is not to brag about it. My intention is simply to illustrate that it is possible to have a transparent and effective legal system. And to stress that we can learn from each other, which this conference is all about.
Finally, I would like to thank our hosts, Minister Žitňanská and Director O' Flaherty, for the opportunity to address this conference. I hope you all find the deliberations interesting and inspiring.