Controversial court ruling on Opening Hours Act

In March 1999, the supermarket chain, RIMI, was acquitted of breaching the provisions of Norway's new and controversial Opening Hours Act. The ruling is not likely to set a precedent for the future, because the Ministry of Children and Family Affairs has already put forward a proposal to abolish some of the exclusions provided for by the Act.

On 16 March 1999, a court acquitted the large Norwegian supermarket chain, RIMI, of breaching the provisions of the new and controversial Opening Hours Act. This was the first legal dispute of its kind since the introduction of the Act. A formal complaint against RIMI was filed in January 1999 by the Norwegian Union of Employees in Commerce and Offices (Handel og Kontor, HK), on the grounds that RIMI was breaching the Act by keeping two outlets open until 22.00 on weekdays and staying open on Sundays.

The new Opening Hours Act, which came into effect on 1 January 1999, was introduced to protect employees in the wholesale and retail trade against inconvenient working hour arrangements (NO9901108F). According to the provisions of the Act, shops may not be open after 21.00 on weekdays or after 18.00 on Saturdays, and have to stay closed on Sundays. There are, however, several exclusions provided for by the Act. These include a stipulation that shops which are located in the vicinity of traffic links, and as such are serving the needs of travellers in terms of the "selection of goods", may be excluded from the provisions of the Act.

In acquitting RIMI, the municipal court (Herredsrett) of Asker and Bærum ruled that the two RIMI outlets concerned were indeed located in the vicinity of traffic links. As to the "selection of goods", the court held that the Act's provisions were too vague, and thus rested its decision on earlier precedents.

The new Opening Hours Act has generated considerable debate, and one controversial issue has been the interpretation of the term "traffic link". Several outlets have taken advantage of the vagueness of the provisions in the Act, and stayed open on the justification of being located close to traffic links. HK initiated a campaign earlier in 1999 in order to have these outlets' actions tried in court.

However, the March ruling is not likely to set a precedent for the future, because the Ministry of Children and Family Affairs has already put forward a proposal to abolish some of the exclusions provided for in the Act, including the clause concerning traffic links. The opposition Labour Party has signalled its support for the proposal, and the government aims to have the proposal approved in parliament before the summer.

HK was disappointed with the court's interpretation of the Act, claiming that it goes against the intentions of the parliament. The leader of the Commercial Employers Association (Handels- og Servicenæringens Hovedorganisasjon, HSH), Thomas Angell, sees the verdict as a victory for the wholesale and retail trade sector. Neither HK nor HSH believe that the ruling will act as a precedent, because of the proposed tightening of the legal framework.

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