Denmark is willing give Greenland control of its justice system—but not more money to pay for it


Greenland can have the justice system it wants, provided it does not cost the Danish state more than it already spends to run the courts, police force and correctional facilities there.

“There’s not enough money to fix everything,” Søren Pape Poulsen, the Danish justice minister, told a meeting of legislators from Denmark and Greenland on Wednesday. “That means we need to prioritize what’s most important. Just as we would in Denmark.”

For now, responsibility for the justice system in Greenland remains in the hands of Copenhagen. Nuuk can request for it to be devolved but will not do so until it meets the same standard that Danes themselves can expect of their own justice system. The cost of operating it is another hindrance. A 2011 estimate suggested this would be 300 million kroner ($43 million) annually, about 15 percent of Greenland’s GDP.

Until Nuuk takes over, Poulsen says Copenhagen is willing to let Greenland itself decide how its justice system should be run.

In practice, this has already been the case: in order to keep decision-making as local as possible, as well as to accommodate a lack of resources, local courts are staffed by lay judges, and settlements are policed by constables, rather than trained officers. Another difference is that correctional facilities are built as open prisons, which emphasizes the primary goal of resocializing convicts.

Lawmakers and legal experts argue such differences suit Greenlandic culture, and have numerous advantages. But they admit there are problems: Not having proper training can result in judges making inconsistent rulings, which bogs down higher courts. Many communities lack constables. Corrections officers have gradually been tasked with more responsibility for resocializing convicts, a task their representatives say they are not trained for. As a result, many individuals find themselves detained in facilities advocates say are unsuitable for the purpose; some convicts, they point out, find themselves locked up in unmanned facilities, sometimes without access to a toilet.

Some steps have been taken to sort out the situation: the Danish justice ministry has created an office that specifically focuses on Greenlandic (and Faroese) legal issues, and a national public defender’s office was recently established for Greenland. In 2018, a correctional facility that has both an open and detention wing will open in Nuuk.

Aaja Chemnitz Larsen, one of Greenland’s two representatives in the Danish national assembly, and the organizer of Wednesday’s meeting, points out that geography influences the country’s justice system on two accounts.

Firstly, its size and small population means the few resources that do exist are spread thin, in part because their responsibilities include many administrative tasks.

Secondly, the vast distance between where laws are made (Copenhagen), and where they are implemented means they are not a precise match for the local situation. Currently, the way around this is to come up with Greenlandic versions of Danish laws. Such a process is time-consuming though: A local version of the Danish data-protection act, for example, came into effect in December, four years after the process of adapting it began. In Denmark, a new version of the law will take effect in 2018.

Legal experts suggest such situations could be avoided by drafting laws specifically for Greenland, rather than modifying Danish ones.

Suggesting that Greenland should do something the same way they would do it in Denmark, may, it turns out, be an argument whose time has passed.