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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

Laying down the law: Switzerland’s weirdest court cases

Whoever said nothing of interest ever happens in this peaceful country should rethink their position. Here are some of the most bizarre cases that the Swiss legal system has had to deal with.

Swiss courts have ruled on a variety of wacky cases
Fish, cow bells, and gnomes: Some strange cases have been tried in Switzerland. Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

Judging by the kind of issues that Swiss courts have had to rule on, it would seem that some people don’t have much else to occupy themselves other than nitpick and go looking for trouble.

Maybe it’s boredom or perhaps a genuine desire to see that justice is served, but some of the cases the legal system has had to consider (in all seriousness) are, well, you be the judge!

Gnome’s buttocks have a day in court

There are apparently no other problems in Fricktal, Aargau because the biggest news coming out of the rural area in the north of the country is a court case involving a rude garden gnome.

As reported by Blick on November 13th, an elderly couple is suing their neighbour because she refuses to move her butt-naked garden gnome, whose uncovered posterior is facing directly the pensioners’ kitchen window.

“When I look north, I see an ass”, the indignant husband testified in a district court.

He added that he told the owner of the offensive creature multiple times to “remove the gnome, you idiot!”

READ MORE: Nine ways you might be annoying your neighbours (and not realising it) in Switzerland

For the prosecution — yes, the couple actually hired an attorney — the accused deliberately placed the  buttocks in the couple’s field of vision, an accusation that the gnome owner vehemently denies.  

As the plaintiffs consider the incident to be “an attack on their honour”, they request that the gnome owner be fined 1,050 francs.

The case is still underway, but the judgment day is near.

A very fishy case in Zurich

We swear we are not making it up: a Zurich lawyer went to court to represent the (posthumous) rights of a fish.

It all started in 2008 when Patrick Giger, a 34-year-old angler from the Swiss village of Horgen, fished out a 10-kg pike from Lake Zurich.

Due the pike’s weight, he had to roughly yank it for 10 minutes, but he finally succeeded, and that night he and his friends ate it.

A few months later, the state prosecutor for Zurich filed criminal charges against Giger for causing excessive suffering to the animal.

The pike was represented in court by animal advocate Antoine Goetschel. Giger was acquitted, though the case might have left a fishy taste in his mouth.

READ MORE: The ten strange laws in Switzerland you need to know

As a result of this case, however, the parliament passed a law in 2009 requiring all anglers in the country to take a course on humane methods of catching fish.

Meanwhile, Goetschel has become known as Switzerland’s foremost animal welfare lawyer and he spearheaded a referendum that would require each canton to appoint a special attorney to represent pets and farm animals in court in cases of alleged abuse.

In response, a group called “No to the Useless Animal Lawyers’ Initiative” had been set up to urge voters to turn down the proposal.

Ultimately, it was rejected by 70 percent of voters on March 7th, 2010, on the grounds that Switzerland’s animal protection laws are already strong enough.

In fact, it seems that a number of cases in Swiss courts involve animals. Like this one…

Locking horns over cow bells

In 2014, a farmer in the Zurich Oberland area was court-ordered to remove bells from his cows after his neighbours complained the chiming kept them awake.

The residents of a hamlet live in homes adjoining a pasture where the farmer keeps some of his 27 cows.

The conflict began around four years previously, when residents asked the farmer to take the bells off cows who had come from mountain pastures.

When he refused, the case landed in a district court, which ruled that any cow located within 200 metres of a house between 10pm and 7am should be de-belled.

However, the farmer refused, arguing that his cattle had on occasion escaped from the enclosure and bells helped him locate them again.

Finally, a a cantonal court upheld the earlier ruling, but the farmer vowed to take his case all the way to the federal court.

Stay tuned.

A noisy cow. Photo by Heiner from Pexels

READ MORE: Why are cows so important in Switzerland?

And speaking of bells…

Whether on cows or in churches, the bells can create quite a ruckus.

For instance, a Protestant church in Wädenswil, canton Zurich, rang its bells every 15 minutes, even through the night.

A couple living nearby complained they couldn’t sleep and asked the local court to weigh in on the issue. They backed their case with a scientific study carried out by the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, which showed that noise of the bells reached 48 decibels when the windows were slightly ajar.

Levels of 40-45 decibels can be disruptive, the study said.

READ MORE: The nine most surprising questions on Switzerland’s citizenship exam

The court agreed with the couple, ruling that the bells should only be rung on the hour at night, rather than every 15 minutes.

However, in 2017, the Federal Court has ruled on appeal in favour of the church, allowing it to continue ringing its bells throughout the night.

Switzerland’s highest court overturned the ruling, arguing that less frequent bells at night made little difference to noise levels and that this ringing of church bells was a local tradition.

The issue of noise in the countryside crops up in Switzerland from time to time, which brings us to the case of…

The noisy henhouse

In 2010, a couple purchased a house in the hills over Montreux, Vaud, with the intention of keeping chickens on its 4,000m2 parcel of land. The commune confirmed that they could keep up to 2,000 chickens on their property.

But in 2012, a neighbour complained about the racket the chickens and roosters made in the vicinity of his house and demanded 97,000 francs in damages.

The noisemakers. Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

The owners claimed, not unreasonably, that this was an absurd demand in a rural area, especially as the neighbour didn’t live in his house full-time and only stayed there occasionally.

After months of legal wrangling, the neighbour agreed to renounce his claim for damages if the couple gave up their henhouse, which they refused to do.

The court finally ruled in favour of chicken owners, ordering the neighbour to pay more than 36,000 francs in court costs.

These are among Switzerland’s weirdest court cases, proving that the Swiss don’t hesitate to use the judicial system if they feel their (or their animals’) rights are being violated, even in ways that could be seen as trivial in some countries.

But that’s not all

Sometimes, strange things can happen before people even get to court.

In 2016, a man caught speeding drove to his court hearing in the canton of Lucerne in a car with stolen number plates.

The 25-year-old made it to court, but was re-arrested in a car park immediately following the hearing.

READ MORE: Five Swiss laws that foreign residents are bound to break

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OFFBEAT

Is Switzerland’s male-only mandatory military service ‘discriminatory’?

Under Swiss law, all men must serve at least one year in compulsory national service. But is this discriminatory?

Swiss military members walk across a road carrying guns
A new lawsuit seeks to challenge Switzerland's male-only military service requirement. Is this discriminatory? FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

All men aged between the ages of 18 and 30 are required to complete compulsory military service in Switzerland. 

A lawsuit which worked its way through the Swiss courts has now ended up in the European Court of Human Rights, where the judges will decide if Switzerland’s male-only conscription requirement violates anti-discrimination rules. 

Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper wrote on Monday the case has “explosive potential” and has “what it takes to cause a tremor” to a policy which was first laid out in Switzerland’s 1848 and 1874 Federal Constitutions. 

What is Switzerland’s compulsory military service? 

Article 59 of the Federal Constitution of Switzerland says “Every man with Swiss citizenship is liable for military service. Alternative civilian service shall be provided for by law.”

Recruits must generally do 18 weeks of boot camp (longer in some cases). 

They are then required to spend several weeks in the army every year until they have completed a minimum 245 days of service.

Military service is compulsory for Swiss men aged 18 and over. Women can chose to do military service but this is rare.

What about national rather than military service? 

Introduced in 1996, this is an alternative to the army, originally intended for those who objected to military service on moral grounds. 

READ MORE: The Swiss army’s growing problem with civilian service

Service is longer there than in the army, from the age of 20 to 40. 

This must be for 340 days in total, longer than the military service requirement. 

What about foreigners and dual nationals? 

Once you become a Swiss citizen and are between the ages of 18 and 30, you can expect to be conscripted. 

READ MORE: Do naturalised Swiss citizens have to do military service?

In general, having another citizenship in addition to the Swiss one is not going to exempt you from military service in Switzerland.

However, there is one exception: the obligation to serve will be waved, provided you can show that you have fulfilled your military duties in your other home country.

If you are a Swiss (naturalised or not) who lives abroad, you are not required to serve in the military in Switzerland, though you can voluntarily enlist. 

How do Swiss people feel about military and national service? 

Generally, the obligation is viewed relatively positively, both by the general public and by those who take part in compulsory service. 

While several other European countries have gotten rid of mandatory service, a 2013 referendum which attempted to abolish conscription was rejected by 73 percent of Swiss voters. 

What is the court case and what does it say? 

Martin D. Küng, the lawyer from the Swiss canton of Bern who has driven the case through the courts, has a personal interest in its success. 

He was found unfit for service but is still required to pay an annual bill to the Swiss government, which was 1662CHF for the last year he was required to pay it. 

While the 36-year-old no longer has to pay the amount – the obligation only lasts between the ages of 18 and 30 – Küng is bring the case on principle. 

So far, Küng has had little success in the Swiss courts, with his appeal rejected by the cantonal administrative court and later by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. 

Previous Supreme Court cases, when hearing objections to men-only military service, said that women are less suitable for conscription due to “physiological and biological differences”.

In Küng’s case, the judges avoided this justification, saying instead that the matter was a constitutional issue. 

‘No objective reason why only men have to do military service’

He has now appealed the decision to the European level. 

While men have previously tried and failed when taking their case to the Supreme Court, no Swiss man has ever brought the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Küng told the NZZ that he considered the rule to be unjust and said the Supreme Court’s decision is based on political considerations. 

“I would have expected the Federal Supreme Court to have the courage to clearly state the obvious in my case and not to decide on political grounds,” Küng said. 

“There is no objective reason why only men have to do military service or pay replacement taxes. On average, women may not be as physically productive as men, but that is not a criterion for excluding them from compulsory military service. 

There are quite a few men who cannot keep up with women in terms of stamina. Gender is simply the wrong demarcation criterion for deciding on compulsory service. If so, then one would have to focus on physical performance.”

Is it likely to pass? 

Küng is optimistic that the Strasbourg court will find in his favour, pointing to a successful appeal by a German man who complained about a fire brigade tax, which was only imposed on men. 

“This question has not yet been conclusively answered by the court” Küng said. 

The impact of a decision in his favour could be considerable, with European law technically taking precedence over Swiss law.

It would set Switzerland on a collision course with the bloc, particularly given the popularity of the conscription provision. 

Küng clarified that political outcomes and repercussions don’t concern him. 

“My only concern is for a court to determine that the current regulation is legally wrong.”

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