The following is a guest post by Elin Hofverberg, who covers Scandinavian jurisdictions at the Law Library of Congress. Elin’s previous posts include Alfred Nobel’s Will: A Legal Document that Might Have Changed the World and a Man’s Legacy, Swedish Detention Order Regarding Julian Assange, The Masquerade King and the Regulation of Dancing in Sweden, The Trade Embargo Behind the Swedish Jokkmokk Sami Market, and 250 Years of Press Freedom in Sweden.
Just over 100 years ago, on December 6, 1917, Finland officially declared independence from Russia. The Declaration of Independence had been signed on December 4 by the Senate (then Finland’s highest governing body) and was adopted by the Finnish Parliament two days later. Work towards independence had commenced in March 1917 following the abdication of the Russian tsar.
A short time after the country received international recognition a civil war broke out. The Finnish Civil War was fought in the early months of 1918 until a stable government was established in May 1918. The country’s first constitution was signed in July 1919.
Brief History of Finland
- Although a relatively young independent nation in Northern Europe, Sami people—the indigenous people living in the very north of Europe—have inhabited the northern parts of Finland for several millennia.
- Finland was effectively part of Sweden from 1323 until the early 1800s. Like other parts of Sweden, it was made up of different landskap (provinces) each with their own laws. From the 1600s until the 1700s, Finland was bound by a Swedish law that applied Magnus Erikssons Landslag (a law originally made by King Magnus IV in around 1341 that had sought to replace the landskap laws throughout the country). From 1734, the new Swedish code applied in Finland.
- Following Swedish losses in the 1808-1809 Finnish War with Russia, Finland became part of the Russian Empire from 1809 until its independence in 1917. Finland was a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, although during this time it retained many of the laws that it had adopted while part of Sweden.
- In 1907, Finland (while still part of Russia) became the first country in Europe to elect women (in fact, nineteen of them) to the National Assembly, after giving women the right to both vote and run for political office in 1906.
- Following independence in December 1917, the Finnish Parliament passed legislation allowing Jews (“Mosaic Confessors”) to become Finnish citizens. Jewish settlement in Finland had previously been prohibited under the Swedish law that applied in the territory.
The Law Library’s Finnish Collection
Intrigued by the events of 1917, I spent the Finnish centennial browsing the Law Library’s Finnish law collection and found some real gems. Looking through Finlands författningssamling from 1918, I found laws limiting the amount of food a person was allowed to carry following the Finnish Civil War (Finlands Senats beslut angående enskilda personers rätt att transportera livsmedel FFS 1918:93, utfärdat 13 augusti 1918) and laws on the creation of a Finnish flag (Lag om Finlands flagga FFS 1918:40, utfärdat 29 maj 1918). Of course, there is so much more to discover. The Library holds approximately 3,000 law titles related to Finland. These range from current legal commentaries to rare legal texts.
Rare materials include:
- The Codex Aboënsis (Codex f.d. Kalmar), compiled in the 1440s, which contains the oldest Finnish laws, as well as an introductory saints’ calendar in Latin, composed for the Turku/Åbo Diocese.
- In Sweriges rijkes stadz lagh, effter den stromechtige, höghborne furstes och herres, her Gustaf Adolphs, Sweriges, göthes och wendes, etc. konungz. storfurstes til Finland, hertigh vti Estland och Carelen, herres vtöfwer Ingermanland, etc. befalning vthgången af trycket, åhr 1618, in which Gustavus II Adolfus, king of Sweden and grand duke of Finland, ratifies the medieval municipal law of Magnus Eriksson.
- Ukazatel’ uzakonenii, otnosiashchikhsia do Velikago kniazhestva Finliandskago. Polnoe sobranie zakonov … 1808-1899, an imperial Russian index to legislation relating to the Grand Duchy of Finland, with a complete collection of laws covering 1808-99.
- Suomen perustuslait (Helsinki, 1920), the early constitution of the Republic of Finland. In 1999, the Parliament enacted a new Constitution of Finland (effective in 2000) that consolidated different constitutional statutes and shifted to a more parliamentary system of government.
There are various English resources that provide commentary on current Finnish law, including:
- An Introduction to Finnish Law
- Introduction to Finnish Business Law
- Finnish Law as an Option
- Civil Procedure in Finland
- Media Law in Finland
- Environmental Law in Finland
- Competition Law in Finland
- Migration Law in Finland
- The Constitution of Finland
- The Constitution of Finland: A Contextual Analysis
Another interesting point to note is that when Finland declared its independence in 1917 it had three official languages: Russian, Finnish, and Swedish. Law books printed in 1920 included the laws written in all three languages. Today the right to use one’s own language is protected by section 17 of the current Finnish Constitution, which recognizes Finnish and Swedish as official languages of Finland. However, the Republic Finland has had legislation regarding the status of languages since 1922.
Information in English on the status of different languages in Finland is provided in the following resources:
- Bilingual Higher Education in the Legal Context: Group Rights, State Policies and Globalisation
- Life in Two Languages: The Finnish Experience
- The Language Rights of the Indigenous Saami in Finland: Under Domestic and International Law
If you have a question regarding Finnish law, you can submit it using the Ask a Librarian form on our website. You can also follow Finnish legal developments online through our Global Legal Monitor publication.