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High trial costs give many in Finland pause

Nearly half of all Finnish residents are reluctant to bring an action in court because they fear that a trial can become too expensive.

Päijät-Hämeen käräjäoikeuden istuntosali tyhjänä.
An empty courtroom in Lahti. Image: Emilia Malin / Yle

Over the past two years, nearly two-thirds of people in Finland have wrestled with some kind of legal issue or dispute. Even so, according to a report by the U.S.-based World Justice Project only a mere seven percent turned to the police and the courts to seek a settlement.

This is one of the lowest rates of legal action in the world. The only countries where citizens bring suits at a lower rate are Mongolia, Senegal, Nepal, Georgia and Hong Kong.

The primary reason so few disputes come to court is the fear of high costs. The latest survey by the Association of Finnish Lawyers shows that 45 percent of people said they are afraid to bring their cases to court because of high legal costs. Other reasons included the long times cases can take, a sense of shame or ignorance of rights and insufficient access to legal counsel.

Of the 1,000 respondents between the ages of 15 and 70 polled, about half had some form of legal expenses insurance, but policies that rarely cover all costs that can arise during a legal process.

Google doesn't have all the answers

Professor Tuula Linna, who chairs the Association of Finnish Lawyers, says that the most common disputes people consider for legal action are associated with living conditions and usually involve problems with neighbours.

"Over a quarter have disputes over noise, pets, rubbish or parking spots," she says.

But Linna adds that what is more disturbing than unresolved problems with neighbours are cases of people who have not received the healthcare or social benefits they may be entitled to. Other potential cases that often don't go to court involve consumer complaints, accidents, employment and family disputes.

So, since Finnish residents tend to not seek out professional legal advice, where do they turn? To Google, of course.

"I'm astounded that nearly half of Finns, 47 percent, turn to the internet and media sources for legal advice. That can sometimes be a problem. The information found is too general and is never about one’s own specific case. Someone seeking help can go astray and there can be misunderstandings," Tuula Linna points out.

According to the World Justice Project, over 20 percent of people who look for answers to legal complaints via search engines eventually give up and give in to their problems, for example by moving or relinquishing their rights.

More free legal aid

Legal costs have risen especially in cases of litigation, a fact which affects many people especially with regard to disputes concerning housing purchases, as well as family and inheritance issues.

In many litigation cases, the principle is that the losing party is responsible for the costs. In addition to their own costs, the losing party must therefore reimburse the winning party's expenses.

The Association of Finnish Lawyers would like to see more people eligible to receive free legal aid, not just low income citizens.

"A normal middle income earner is not part of the group that can receive free legal aid," notes the association's executive director, Jore Tilander.

On Monday, the Association of Finnish Lawyers launched a campaign with the slogan "Everyone has the right to justice". The main thrust of the campaign is to highlight problems within the legal system and proposals for improvements.

The association emphasises that the state should invest more money in legal services, expand the possibility of receiving free legal aid and develop legal expenses insurance so that such policies can offer a proper level of protection.

In addition, the Association of Finnish Lawyers wants to develop alternative methods for resolving disputes, such as mediation and arbitration.

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