Olle Lundin: Knowing where the law draws the line
How are local politicians and officials at public agencies actually allowed to behave? And what does the law say about procurement, conflict of interest and corruption? Olle Lundin, professor of administrative law, is one of the experts in this area.
Olle Lundin is frequently consulted by journalists around Sweden. He is glad to help by explaining the legal limits to what actions are permissible for public-sector officials.
“The other day, I was talking to a journalist in the north of Sweden. The local authority had appointed someone as a property inspector, on a half-time basis. For the other 50 per cent of his working time, he looked after local properties he owned personally. The journalist thought something was wrong, but didn’t know why. I was able to tell her that the situation involved a job on the side and a conflict-of-interest problem.”
At central government level, too, there have been a succession of corruption scandals in the past few years. The Swedish National Audit Office and Svenska kraftnät (the state-owned power utility) are just two examples.
Is this an area where it’s hard to know what the rules are?
“Yes, it is. It’s a complicated area, and one in which there are relatively few lawyers.”
When we meet, Lundin has just concluded a seminar for would-be geomaticians (land-surveying students). He does a great deal of teaching; here, at the Department, there are 2,000 students. Students on the Law Programme, which lasts four and a half years, are taught public administration by Lundin in their sixth semester.
Lundin himself got hooked on the subject back in his own student days, which culminated in a thesis in municipal law.
“There are extremely few people engaged in issues of municipal law in Sweden – perhaps only three or four.”
And yet there’s so much going on in the municipalities.
“Yes. The whole welfare state is within their remit these days. And it’s the municipalities, above all, that we come into contact with as private individuals. So they have a tremendously important function in Sweden.”
For the past few years, with three colleagues, Olle Lundin has been working on a project about equal access to school education (En likvärdig skola). The aim is to investigate whether current legislation is adequate for the purpose of ensuring the equality of opportunity in youth education that is laid down in the Swedish Education Act. The aim is for all pupils to be able to attain their full potential, and for pupils with disabilities to receive the support they need to have the same chances as their peers.
“The question is whether the rules and regulations are enough for the equality requirements to be met. It’s problematic that the Swedish state delegates this task to the 290 municipal education providers, and tells them they’ve all got to behave in the same way.”
The project is approaching completion, and the final report will be issued at year-end. The hope is that this will contain useful information for those who work on school issues.
“The reason why we received research funding was that there’s very little written about Swedish school education from a legal point of view – hardly anything. So this will help to raise the level.”
As a legal scholar, Lundin has many, frequent contacts with society at large: law firms, law courts and more.
“We’re often get involved as experts in public inquiries at the Government Offices. Many of us also write statements of opinion on court actions, and sometimes we assist private individuals. It’s an extremely broad spectrum.”
In teaching law, he has to give concrete examples. Otherwise, the subject tends to become vague, general and dull. The same applies when journalists phone him, wanting his comments on real-life cases.
“Training new lawyers has to be one of the most important tasks you can have. After all, it’s a matter of establishing the rule of law. So it’s a job I’m happy and proud to be doing. If one can impart a bit of good sense and wisdom to them, it goes quite a long way.”
He also teaches practising lawyers and officials about, for example, the new Administrative Procedure Act and the practicalities of human rights. Public law is an area in which a good deal is happening, so to keep abreast it is important to study new legal cases and public inquiries.
In the future, he would like to carry out research on contempt of law and court. This is when the municipalities’ elected officials choose to respect neither legislation nor court orders – a fairly common phenomenon in Sweden.
“In Finland and Denmark they have sanctions. So if you do something wrong you may get a personal fine of 20,000 kronor. In Sweden, we have a concept of municipal self-government that’s so strong as to rule out sanctioning even elected representatives who act as if they were above the law. That paves the way for rebellious municipalities and officials.”
He gives an example. A few years ago, in the north of Sweden, a municipal bathhouse was given away to a local politician’s crony.
“It was possible to do that without incurring some kind of penalty. The court said it was wrong and they weren’t allowed to do it. But no sanctions were imposed, and the bathhouse had already been given away.”
Another example is from Uppsala, where the municipality hired influencers to market local restaurants. This contravened the Swedish Local Government Act.
“The question is whether it’s that the people aren’t skilled enough or whether there’s a general attitude that there’s no need to follow the regulations,” says Lundin, sounding somewhat tired but, at the same time, fully engaged with these issues.
What is your driving force as a researcher?
“In a way, I think if you point out what’s silly and wrong, perhaps things will get better. That way I, or we, can fulfil a function. It’s one of the reasons why I think it’s important to speak out in the media, which can lead to change. For example, when those three Auditors General in charge of the National Audit Office were replaced, things really did improve a lot. So believing in future improvement is a powerful driving force.”
6 April 2020
Olle Lundin – facts
Title: Professor of Administrative Law.
Leisure pursuits: The house and garden are a major interest, and I travel a great deal, too. I have three children to manage – true, the eldest is nearly 30, but they still need managing! And I’m married: we’ll be celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary in March.
Currently reading: Right now I’m reading old science fiction from the 1960s and ’70s. Otherwise, as a lawyer one reads so much that it can be pleasant not reading sometimes, and perhaps watching a film instead.
Hidden talent: No. What you see is what you get.
Latest trip: Last summer I was in Japan and went to two conferences, but also had a few days off. It was exciting. And we like visiting the States – both New York and Florida.
What makes me happy: My nearest and dearest being happy and healthy.
What makes me angry: The monumental stupidity of various decisions made by the powers that be that are known to be both illegal and incorrect. How the Swedish Public Employment Service has been dealt with – just budget cuts, with no responsible politician stepping forward and getting to grips with it – is one example. I think that kind of thing is fairly spineless.