The country is divided into judicial districts, with one District Court each. Oslo is an exception, with two district courts (Oslo tingrett for criminal and civil cases, Oslo byfogdembete for enforcement cases, bankruptcy, probate, marriages and the issue of official certification. A judicial district consists of one or more municipalities.
Criminal cases in the District Court are decided either by a guilty plea or by the mixed panel of professional and lay judges. In addition, the District Court can take certain decisions during the investigation of criminal cases. The criteria for entering judgment on a guilty plea is that the accused makes an unreserved confession supported by the evidence in the case. In such cases the sentencing framework cannot exceed ten years, and the accused must concur with the procedure. These cases are heard by a single professional judge.
The decisions of the District Court regarding imprisonment or other coercive sanctions during the investigation, and any ban on visits to remand prisoners are also taken by a professional judge.
In ordinary criminal cases the District Court sits as a mixed panel of one professional and two lay judges. In lengthy and other special cases, the court may be constituted as an “extended court” with two professional and three lay judges. The professional judges and the lay judges participate on an equal basis as regards both the question of guilt and the sentencing. The lay judges are drawn for the individual case from a pool of persons appointed by the municipal council for four years at a time.
Judgments of the District Court may be appealed to the Court of Appeal. This means that for reasons of due process, the question of guilt is tested in two instances.With the exception of the most serious cases, the Court of Appeal’s appeals committee can refuse to let the Court of Appeal hear a case.
The civil disputes in the District Courts include a number of different case types, such as family cases, neighbours’ quarrels, compensation suits, quashing of administrative decisions and disputes in employment and business relationships. One party may file a writ of summons with the District Court, but a judgment in the conciliation council can also be brought before the District Court.
Instead of a normal main hearing, the court can call the parties in for court conciliation. The District Courts also consider cases on enforcement, bankruptcy, debt settlement (composition), division of joint property and decedent estates. These cases are heard by a judge alone. Court hearings or creditors’ meetings can be held, and the judge decides questions that arise during this procedure or adjudicates the case.
Most civil cases are handled by the Conciliation Boards, which are mediation bodies that have a certain power to enter judgment as well. They deal with more
than 250,000 cases per year.
The two-instance system
In 1995 Norway introduced a new system whereby all cases can be considered in two instances. This means that all cases start in the District Courts. Previously, serious criminal cases began in the Court of Appeal, which means that in such cases the question of guilt in coulbe tested only once. Having the question f guilt tested by two instances improves the rights of the accused. The Court of Appeal’s appeals committee determines whether the case can be brought before the Court of Appeal, but in the most serious criminal cases the convicted person is entitled to a new hearing in the Court of Appeal if he contests the judgment. The question of guilt in criminal cases cannot be appealed to the Supreme Court.