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Milking the system in Norway!

Jehovah's Witnesses demand four times as much as the state in court costsLAWYER'S EXPENSES: If Jehovah's Witnesses win the lawsuit against the state in Norway, the religious community demands that legal costs be covered, which are far higher than the state's counterclaim.

From Vårt Land (Machine translated by Google)(STIFF PRICE: Jehovah's Witnesses' lawyers have presented the religious community's claim for legal costs to the court. The lion's share of the expenses accrue to legal representative Anders Ryssdal)

Jehovah's Witnesses submitted legal costs of NOK 4,334,850  ($414,060 USD) linked to the ongoing lawsuit against the state. The expenses have gone to the four Norwegian lawyers the religious community has engaged, and the amount does not include VAT.

The claim is more than four times as large as the state's claim, which is just over one million kroner.

Jehovah's Witnesses' lawyers have logged a total of over 1,000 working hours, compared to the state's approximately 600 hours.

The state protestsThe dispute between Jehovah's Witnesses and the state went before the Oslo district court on 8–19 January last year. Jehovah's Witnesses have taken legal action against the state, after the State Administrator in Oslo and Viken in 2022 deprived Jehovah's Witnesses of state subsidies and registration as a religious community.

In civil disputes, it is common for the party who loses the court case to cover the other party's legal costs.

When the demand from Jehovah's witnesses was presented during the last day of the trial on Friday, government lawyer Kristin Hallsjø objected to the demand, and described it as "a bit too high".

She said that when imposing legal costs, the starting point should be the usual rate for legal assistance, but that there are exceptions for so-called "particularly expensive assistance". But then one must also be able to expect that the number of hours will decrease, she said.

According to her, that did not appear to be the case in this case.

NOK 6,100 per hour (approx $582 USD)The lion's share of the expenses Jehovah's Witnesses are demanding to be covered goes to their legal representative in the case, Anders Ryssdal. He states that he charges an hourly rate of NOK 6,100 before VAT.

In the accounts he submitted to the court, he invoiced NOK 300,000  ($28,655 USD) for work he had done before the summons was delivered, NOK 1.7 million for the time between the summons and the trial, and NOK 500,000 for the two weeks the trial lasted.

In total, therefore, Ryssdal is expected to be paid NOK 2.5 million ($238,797 USD) to prosecute the case, while the remaining NOK 1.8 million ($171,934 USD)  is distributed among the three legal assistants.

In addition to the Norwegian lawyers, the international organization Association of Jehovah's Witnesses for the Protection of Religious Freedom has been involved as legal advisers.

During the ongoing trial, the organization had several representatives in the courtroom. One of the organisation's representatives, Ben Elder - whom Vårt Land interviewed last week - was also a bystander in the trial. However, this organisation's expenses are not included in the accounts presented to the court.  

Vårt Land has asked Jehovah's Witnesses how much the total costs of the legal aid they have received are, and whether they have any comments on the legal costs. Neither Jehovah's Witnesses nor lawyer Anders Ryssdal have answered the inquiries.

Way above averageGjermund Aasbrenn is a doctoral candidate in jurisprudence at the Arctic University of Norway (UiT), and specializes in legal costs. He has previously worked as a judge, and assisted the Judicial Commission, which in 2020 presented a public report on the future organization of the court.

He does not want to comment specifically on the legal costs in this case, but says that the high costs can be seen in the context of a problematic trend.

Aasbrenn points to statistics that show that Jehovah's Witnesses' demands are far above average. In the Judicial Commission's investigation, it appears that the average for awarded case costs in the district court in 2018 was NOK 300,000 ($28,655 USD) , measured in today's krone value.

However, the figure can be somewhat misleading, as most dispute cases take far fewer days than the case in question. Available statistics on legal costs per court day show in any case that Jehovah's Witnesses' claims are far higher than what is usually awarded. Divided by the number of court days, Jehovah's Witnesses demand NOK 478,000 ($45,658) per day.

Can prevent citizens' access to the courtThe figures also show a drastic increase in legal costs in recent years. From 2009 to 2018, the awarded case costs increased by 92 per cent, over and above the general increase in prices. According to Aasbrenn, this trend has only continued in recent years. He believes that is cause for concern.

- The problem is not that lawyers earn more money. We have freedom of business, and lawyers are basically free to take what they want for their assignments. But the problem arises when the levels become so high that in practice they prevent citizens from accessing the court.

- Do you think that this is also problematic for religious and life-view communities and voluntary organisations?

- Yes, this is problematic for everyone who needs to use the courts, and who has limited financial resources.

Aasbrenn states, however, that it is not at all certain that Jehovah's Witnesses will be able to cover the entire amount, even if they were to win the case.

- The Disputes Act states that you can demand to be covered for what is normally necessary to get adequate legal aid. If the court finds that Jehovah's Witnesses have spent more than this, they risk having to pay the excess themselves.

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