A lawspeaker or lawman (Swedish: lagman, Old Swedish: laghmaþer or laghman, Danish: lovsigemand, Norwegian: lagmann, Icelandic: lög(sögu)maður, Faroese: løgmaður, Finnish: laamanni) is a unique Scandinavian legal office. It has its basis in a common Germanic oral tradition, where wise men were asked to recite the law, but it was only in Scandinavia that the function evolved into an office. Two of the most famous lawspeakers are Snorri Sturluson and Þorgnýr the Lawspeaker.
In Sweden, this office was the most important one of regional governments, where each lagsaga (usually the same as the traditional province) was the jurisdiction of a lawspeaker who was subordinate to the lawspeaker of Tiundaland. The lawspeaker presided over the Things, worked as a judge and formulated the laws that had been decided by the people. The lawspeaker was obliged to memorize the law and to recite it at the Thing. He was also responsible for the administration at the thing and for the execution of the decisions, and it was his duty to safeguard the rights and liberties of the people and to speak in their behalf to the king or his representative. It was the lawspeaker who, on the behalf of the people, recognized the elected king when he passed on the Eriksgata. However, after the establishment of the province laws, ca 1350, he would participate at the Stone of Mora with twelve companions from his jurisdiction.
According to the Westrogothic law, the lawspeaker was appointed for life by the yeomen (bönder) of the province from among their number; it was also stipulated that his father should also have been an landowner. The office was not hereditary, but he was usually selected from the more powerful families.
The first named Swedish lawspeaker, if the text is correct, is the Lum recorded in a register of Västergötland lawmen copied by Laurentius Dyakn, a priest in Vidhem, in the 1320s; he must have lived around 1000. The first Swedish lawspeaker for whom we have substantial biographical information is Eskil (c. 1175-1227), the seventeenth in Laurentius's list. From the mid-13th century and onwards, the lawspeakers became more attached to the king, and it was common that lawspeakers were members of the king's council. King Magnus Eriksson decided that the king would influence the appointment of the lawspeakers. Six nobles and six yeomen would in consultation with two clergymen appoint three men from the jurisdiction among whom the king would select the one he deemed to be most fit. This procedure would be in effect until the 16th century when the whole process of selection was transferred to the king.
From then on, the lawspeakers only came from the nobility, and it had turned into a pension, in which a member of the Privy Council of Sweden was selected and received a salary, but had other people taking care of the work. This privilege was abolished during the Reduction of 1680, after which the lawspeakers were obliged to take care of the work themselves, and there were checks on the appointment of members of the privy council. Still, the appointment remained restricted to noblemen until 1723.
By then, the functions of the office had become restricted to that of a judge, a function which also became less important by time. In 1849, the office was abolished, but the title remained occasionally in use as a title of honour for governors.
In 1947, the title of lagman (pl. lagmän) was reintroduced for senior judges, namely the presidents of divisions of the courts of appeal. Since reform in 1969, presidents of the district courts (tingsrätter) are lagmän, while presidents of divisions of the courts of appeal are hovrättslagmän ("court of appeal lawspeakers"). Correspondingly, presidents of the district administrative courts (förvaltningsrätter) also carry the title of lagman and presidents of divisions of the administrative courts of appeal are kammarrättslagmän ("administrative court of appeal lawspeakers").
Finland being governed by Swedish law wholly until 1809, the events were the same as in Sweden. However, the lagman offices were terminated and lagman became an honorific title only in 1868 (at that time laws were published also in Finnish and thus also the term laamanni official). In the 1993 reform, laamanni and lagman were reintroduced as the title of the chief judge of a district court or a senior judge in a court of appeal.
In Norway, the lawspeakers remained counselors versed in the law until king Sverre I of Norway (1184–1202) made them into his officials. In the laws of Magnus VI of Norway (1263–80), they were given the right to function as judges and to preside at the lagtings (the Norwegian superior courts). The lagtings and the office of lawspeaker were abolished in 1797, but it was reinstituted in 1887 together with the introduction of the jury system.
In Iceland, the office was introduced in 930, when the Althing was established. He was elected for three years. Besides his function as the president of the thing, his duties were restricted to counselling and to reciting the law. It was the sole government office of the mediaeval Icelandic Commonwealth. The lawspeaker was elected for a term of three years and was supposed to declaim the law at the Althing, a third of it each summer. In fact, Grímr Svertingsson's term was cut short, not because of incompetence or illness, but because his voice was too weak for the job. Apart from his function as a lawsayer and chairman of the court, the lǫgsǫgumaðr had no formal power, but he would often be appointed as an arbitrator in the frequently arising disputes. The office lingered on for a few years in the transitional period after 1262, after which it was replaced with a lǫgmaðr. The traditional date for the founding of the Althing is 930 with Úlfljótr appearing as a founding figure and the original author of the laws. After the union with Norway in 1264, two royal lawspeakers were appointed who had an important influence on the legal processes at the thing. The office was abolished together with the Althing in 1800.
Scholars are suspicious of the fact that Úlfljótur's first two successors have been assigned a period in office of exactly 20 summers each, but from Þorkell máni on, the chronology is probably correct; names are given in their modern Icelandic form.