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Judge, lawyer unions condemn proposed traffic offence changes: "No presumption of innocence"

Unions representing legal experts have slammed proposed legal changes that would transfer the burden of proof from the prosecutor to the accused when it comes to traffic offences. The proposal is part of a raft of reforms that would ultimately convert income-based traffic fines to a flat administrative fee.

Liikennekamerat valvovat nopeuksia.
The legal reform seeks to do away with income-based traffic fines and introduce more straightforward administrative fees. Image: Antti Aimo-Koivisto / Lehtikuva

Judges, lawyers and transport industry representative groups say a proposed change to Finland's current system of punishing traffic offenses would violate one of the fundamental principles of the rule of law - that the offender is presumed innocent until proved guilty.

The Finnish Union of Judges and the Association of Finnish Lawyers each sent releases to the Ministry of Transport and Communications criticising the reform proposal.

"The burden of proof in traffic violation cases would be transfered from the prosecutor to the recipient of the penalty," the Judges' Union writes. "The authority who issues the fee (usually the police) would not even need to provide concrete evidence that a violation took place."

Under the new law, investigating the guilt of any motorist involved in a misdeed would require a separate appeal process by which the offending party would have to provide proof of their innocence.

"Laying the burden on the accused – who has less of a chance to prove their innocence – is alien to our justice system."

The Automobile and Touring Club of Finland also released a statement Thursday saying that the bill runs counter to the fundamental principles of a state that subscribes to the rule of law.

Legal protection compromised

The lawyers' group says that an appeal would weaken citizens' legal protection and would  be necessary to overturn a penalty issued in error – a failing even the proposal itself admits freely. Appeals like this would also need to be submitted in written form; although an oral interview option would be better, they say.

"With the burden of proof flipped, the applicant would find it practically impossible to nullify a traffic fine with just a written form," the association writes. "The layman is much more likely to successfully plead their case by stating their version of the events outloud."

Not only that, but the legal process involved would no longer be free, but would carry a price tag.

The judges' union goes one step farther, saying the intention is likely to make the appeals process impossible to navigate successfully.

"This bill continues the unfortunate legislative trend of letting government savings goals define outcomes."

Police and ministry defend the change

Finland's Police Board, along with their overseer the Ministry of Interior, defends the pending change. The Minister says that the new administrative fee makes due process easier and will enable new developments in offenses monitoring.

Neither authority mentions the burden of proof issue in their statements.

Talks on the Road Traffic Act reform are set for an autumn deadline, while the new fees would be introduced two years after the law change. Police say that the IT system needed for the reform should be operation by 2021.

Under the new law, the size of the administrative fee would fluctuate wildly – between 50 and 400 euros for speeding violations, for instance. The fee will not not dependent on the offender's income, and violators would be slapped with a universal penalty for violations up to 30 km above the speed limit. Upwards of that, daily penalties would be incurred in the same way they are now.

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