Legal System in Estonia
Estonia is part of Continental European legal system. Sources of law are legal instruments such as the Constitution, European Union law, international agreements, Acts and Regulations.
First traces of human settlement on the territory date back to 10 000 years ago when these areas were inhabited by Finno-Ugric tribes. Modern Estonians are descendants of those tribes, and throughout history Estonians have blended with other nationalities that came to these areas as conquerors. Ancient Estonians retained their independence until beginning of 13 century when areas were conquered by Germans. To the beginning of the 20th century Estonia was ruled by different invaders including German, Swedish, Danish, Polish, and Russian. Estonian law has been most affected by German legal system. Development of continental European law at the time was most influenced by ancient Rome. Roots of Estonian law can be found there. Instruction about Roman law is an integral part of training lawyers.
Modern Estonia was founded in 1918 when Estonia declared independence. First period of independence was short because ambitions of different world powers at the beginning of the 20th century and the Soviet Union. Estonia regained independence as a result of disintegration from the Soviet Union. Estonia declared independence for the second time in 1991 and also marked the end of fifty year Soviet occupation.
After regaining independence openness, liberalism, and international cooperation became popular in Estonia. In a short period the state building process was completed and European values were reaffirmed. Estonia has guaranteed rapid economic development and the social welfare of its people. Success of economy is also attested by fact of Estonia continuing high level global ranking by its index of economic freedom. Estonia has proved that despite its smallness it is a reliable partner and respects democratic values. Most important feature of legal system stems from fact that EU law forms an integral part of Estonian law.
Legal System Today
Estonian legal system belongs to the continental European legal tradition, the Roman-Germanic family. Estonian law today is influenced by other legal systems of other developed countries. Principles contribute to the development of law and each system borrowing from the other. General principles of international law and binding international treaties are an inseparable part of Estonian law. Judicial precedent serves also as a source of law in Estonia today. Case law is decisive with regard to issues of interpretation of law. Globalised society is rapidly developing so that the legislative process is not able to react to necessary changes. As for a system governed by rule of law legal gaps should not exist. Supreme Court has the authority to interpret rules and its opinions are taken into account in the future. Rapid changes and shifting values in society in court judgments also conforms to the spirit of the law. Estonian legal system is formally norm based not mix of precedent and statutory law. Interpretation of norms is necessary to allow legal system to pace with a changing modern society.
The distinction between private and public law is difficult nowadays. Estonia wishes to attend to the welfare of all society. In process of lawmaking this implies attempting to ensure the rights and interests of the weaker party. Under this principle, legal norms are usually imperative so that agreements of these principles are void. Norms aimed at protecting the public interest often find their way in private law. An opposite trend also exists with private law principles emerging in public law. This occurs in areas regulating state and individuals as such relations should exclude the possibility of abuse of power.
Estonian Constitution was adopted by a referendum held in 1992. Constitution stipulates that Estonia is a sovereign democratic republic where supreme power of state is vested in people. Constitution also includes principle of a state based on social justice, and state must ensure basic social guarantees. Independence of Estonia is timeless and inalienable. State authority is exercised under the Constitution and laws that conform to it. The Constitution also states that recognised principles and rules of international law are a part of the Estonian legal system.
Principles in the Constitution include the following - principle of separation of powers; protection of rights and freedoms of people, restricted only with the Constitution; principle of legality and equal treatment, prohibition of discrimination, right to state protection, right of recourse to a court of law, freedom of speech and assembly, integrity of the person, the presumption of innocence, inviolability of family life and privacy, protection of national minorities, freedom of enterprise, protection of health, protection of property, freedom of choice of occupation.