The legal system in Iceland

The following excerpt is from the online article "Update-Researching Icelandic Law" by Rán Tryggvadóttir and Þórdís Ingadóttir, Associate Professors at the Faculty of Law at Reykjavik University. The online article can also be found here.

The Icelandic Legal System

Iceland has a civil law legal system and thus Icelandic law is characterized by written law. Major sources of law in Iceland include the Constitution, statutory legislation, and regulatory statutes. Other legal resources are precedent and customary law. The recognition of tradition of culture (in Icelandic eðli máls) does bear significantly on Icelandic law in a variety of contexts. Act No. 15/2005 stipulates how official material, including adopted Acts, are published.

The Constitution

The Constitutional Act represents the highest national legal authority. Iceland received its first Constitution in 1874 and the current Constitution of 1944 (Act. No. 33/19944) can be traced back to it. The Constitution is composed of seven Chapters, with a total of 79 Articles: Chapter One provides for Iceland's status as a Republic with a parliamentary government, and the separation of the three principal branches of the government; Chapter two stipulates the election and powers of the President; Chapter three and four set out the composition and mandate of the parliament; Chapter five addresses the organization and role of the judiciary; Chapter six lays down that the Evangelical Lutheran Church shall be the State Church in Iceland; Chapter seven includes thirteen human rights provisions, including the right to equal treatment, freedom from interference with privacy and right to freedom of opinion and belief.

The Constitution has been revised seven times. Fundamental changes were made to the human rights chapter of the Icelandic Constitution with Constitutional Act No. 97/1995. The bill accompanying the Act made several references to the European Convention on Human Rights as well as to other Council of Europe and United Nations human rights instruments to which Iceland is a party. Further amendments to the Constitution are envisioned. Early in 2005 the office of the Prime Minister appointed a committee to consider revisions of the Constitution. The committee was to finish its task at the end of 2006. Proposals to amend or supplement the Constitution may be introduced at regular as well as extraordinary sessions of the Althingi. If the proposal is adopted, the Althingi shall immediately be dissolved and a general election held. If the Althingi then passes the resolution unchanged, it shall be confirmed by the President of the Republic and come into force as constitutional law (see Art. 79). The Constitution is available in English Translation.

Statutory Law

Except with respect to constitutional issues, legislation enjoys primacy as a source of law.  With the increasing complexity of economic and social life, the amount and importance of legislation has even increased.  The area of private law is dominated by a range of individual statutory acts and the area of general criminal law is governed by the General Penal Code No. 19, February 12, 1940 (official translation).   New general revised acts have been adopted in principal areas of law, such as the Act on Customs (Act No. 88/2005) and the Act in Respect of Children (Act No. 2003).  In the last few years, numerous pieces of legislation have been adopted in certain fields of law, such as in banking, communications, corporations and intellectual property rights.

Legal Acts are published in the Legal Gazette (Stjórnartíðindi), section A.  Since 2005 publication has been in electronic form. All Acts are also accessible on the Althingi's homepage under the heading "Lagasafn" but as with the Legal Gazette they are only in Icelandic.  Official and unofficial translations of certain Acts can be found on the web-pages of the relevant ministries, accessible through the portal

Regulatory Law

Frequently, statutory acts give the administration the authority to issue regulations. As sources of law, statutory acts prevail over regulations.  Public executive regulations and directives are published in the Legal Gazette, section B.  They are also available online on, only in Icelandic.  Official and unofficial translations of certain regulations can be found on the web-pages of the relevant ministries, accessible through the portal


Being a civil law country, court practice in Iceland does not have the same authoritative role as in Common Law countries.  The Supreme Court has no duty to follow its earlier decisions, and the district courts are not obligated to adhere to earlier decisions of the Supreme Court. However, in matters of legal uncertainty, the decisions of the Supreme Court have considerable authority for the disposition of future cases.  In certain areas of law which did or do not have extensive statutory legislation, e.g., tort, the decisions of the Supreme Court are a source of law of central importance.

Since the beginning of the year 2006, the decisions of the district courts in Iceland have been published online (only in Icelandic) on the Judicial Councils (in Icelandic) webpage.  The decisions of the Supreme Court are also published online on the Courts homepage (in Icelandic).

Customary Law

In Iceland, a custom can acquire the force of law, i.e., become a source of law.  For instance, customary law has been an important source of law in Constitutional matters.

Tradition of Culture (in Icelandic Eðli máls)

Tradition of culture refers to considerations of fairness, justice and feasibility as to needs of the society and resembles to some extent the legal term equity.  Some commentators consider the use of this source of law as distinctive for Nordic legal traditions.  In particular, when other sources of law have not been able to establish a rule of law, courts in Iceland have in some cases relied on Tradition of Culture.

Statements and Decisions by Administrative Authorities

In some areas of law statements by an administrative organ can carry considerable authority.  For instance, in the area of administrative law, the statements of the parliament´s Ombudsman (in Icelandic Umboðsmaður Althingis) carry considerably authority. The Ombudsman´s statements are published and are also available on his website.  Similarly, in the area of tax law, the decisions of the Internal Revenue Board can carry considerable weight.

The EEA and its Effect on Icelandic Legislation

Iceland is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA). The Agreement on the EEA, which came into force in 1994, extends the Single Market of the European Union (EU) to three out of the four EFTA countries, namely Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein.

Membership of the EEA has affected Icelandic legislation considerably. The EEA Agreement is based on the primary legislation of the EU, as developed over the past 30 years and on the relevant succeeding secondary legislation (Acquis Communautaire). To achieve homogeneity between the EEA and EU, the agreement incorporates hundreds of acts, largely identical to the relevant parts of the EC legislation, and these acts are made part of the internal legal order of the contracting parties.  Importantly, this process is continuous; each month a number of pieces of EC legislation, relevant for the EEA, are incorporated in the agreement by decision of EEA Joint Committee. 

The decisions of the EEA Joint Committee are published in the EEA Supplement to the Offical Journal of the European Union a weekly legal gazette containing EEA-related texts from EFTA and EU bodies.

International Law

With respect to the relation between municipal law and international law, Iceland adheres to the principle of dualism. Therefore, ratified international treaties do not assume the force of domestic law, but rather are only binding according to international law.  The Supreme Court of Iceland has sought to interpret Icelandic law, as far as possible, in conformity with Iceland's international obligations.  The Court has made several references to international obligations undertaken by Iceland, and it has interpreted both the Constitution and other laws in coherence with such obligations.  Interestingly, these references include also instruments which have not been incorporated into Icelandic law, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.


The European Convention on Human Rights was incorporated into Icelandic law by Act No. 62/1994. Following its incorporation, its provisions can be directly invoked in court as domestic legislation. Other major human rights instruments ratified by Iceland, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Right and Convention on the Rights of the Child, have not been incorporated into Icelandic law.


International Agreements that Iceland has ratified are published in the Legal Gazette, Section C