STRASBOURG, France (CN) — The Icelandic Court of Appeal was not properly established under European law because of irregularities in judicial appointments, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday.
The court upheld a 2019 decision from its lower chamber that found the Icelandic Ministry of Justice had improperly appointed judges to the newly created appellate court in violation of the right to a fair trial as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.
“Convictions delivered by an unlawfully constituted ‘puppet court’ are the fruits of a poisonous tree which cannot be cured,” the 17-judge panel wrote.
Prior to 2018, Iceland had no intermediate court between the country’s district courts and the Supreme Court. This created a backlog of cases at the high court, and to partially alleviate that strain lawmakers passed the Courts Act of 2016, creating an appellate court.
In 2017, Guðmundur Andri Ástráðsson was convicted of driving without a valid license and while under the influence. The now 34-year-old appealed his conviction and was heard by the newly created Court of Appeal, or Landsréttur in Icelandic.
During his appeal, Ástráðsson argued that one judge, Arnfríður Einarsdóttir, had been improperly appointed to the court and requested her removal. When the court was created, a special committee produced a list of 15 judges. But then-Minister of Justice Sigríður Á. Andersen substituted four other candidates, including Einarsdóttir, and appointed that slate. The Icelandic Supreme Court would later rule that the process violated administrative law, but left all 15 judges in their positions.
After Ástráðsso’s appeal at the Supreme Court failed, he brought a complaint to the Strasbourg-based Court of Human Rights. It was created by the European Convention on Human Rights, a 1953 treaty that protects the political and civil rights of Europeans and people living in Europe.
The judges held Tuesday that the Court of Appeal appointment process “raises serious doubts of irregular interference by the minister in the judiciary and thus taints the legitimacy of the whole procedure.”
The court uses a “three-step test” to determine if a violation of the right to a tribunal, as established by the convention, has taken place: whether there a violation of domestic law, whether that violation broke “any fundamental rule of the judicial appointment procedure,” and whether the violations effectively reviewed. In Ástráðsson’s case, the court found there had been violations of his right to a fair trial in every step.
In a hearing in February, Iceland argued that because the court was new, there was no established precedent for how judges were appointed and it wasn’t clear how parliament should have approved the judges. But the Court of Human Rights found “that not only did parliament fail to demand that the minister provide objective reasons for her proposals to enable it to perform its duty effectively, but also – as the Supreme Court has acknowledged – it did not comply with the special voting rules set out” in the 2016 Courts Act.
The judges were careful, however, to make it clear that any irregularity in a judicial appointment does not necessarily result in a violation of the convention.
“States should be afforded a certain margin of appreciation in this connection, since the national authorities are in principle better placed than the court to assess how the interests of justice and the rule of law – with all its conflicting components – would be best served in a particular situation,” the ruling states.
The court ordered Iceland to pay Ástráðsson 20,000 euros ($24,000) in damages.
Andersen, the justice minister, stepped down in 2019 after the earlier Court of Human Rights ruling that found her appointments were improper. The four judges she appointed have been on administrative leave since that ruling was made.