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Switzerland explained For Members

EXPLAINED: What you should know about Switzerland's courts

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: What you should know about Switzerland's courts
Switzerland has three levels of justice system. Image by Daniel Bone from Pixabay

Hopefully, you will never have to set foot in a Swiss (or any other) court, but it is good to familiarise yourself with how Switzerland's judicial system works.

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In Switzerland, like in some other countries, the government is divided between three branches: the legislature (parliament), which passes the laws; the executive (the Federal Council), which implements laws; and the judiciary (courts), which interprets them.

Unlike the legislative and executive branches, which can be thought of in terms of a pyramid, with all the power lying at the grassroots level and diminishing at the top, the judiciary is more like an inverted pyramid — district courts at the bottom, cantonal ones in the middle, and federal at the very top.

The different court levels

The district courts — a Gerichtskreis or Gerichtsbezirk in German and an arrondissement judiciaire in French — group together judiciary authorities by local areas.

Many Swiss towns are too small to have their own courts, so a district court is just that — a court that covers several neighbouring communities.

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If, say, you become involved in a civil lawsuit, a divorce case, or any kind of minor or major litigation or dispute, the case will be first be heard at the district court.

Most often, its rulings are final.

However, if you are not happy with the verdict of your district court, you can appeal it within 30 days, at which point your case will go the higher judicial level, that is, the cantonal court.

Each canton has its own high court — Switzerland's second most important judicial entity hierarchically.

Besides criminal cases, cantonal high courts hear civil claims, and there are also courts on cantonal level for administrative cases.

There are also juvenile courts, courts for ‘economic offences’, as well as commercial, lease, and labour courts.

The next is the Federal Supreme court, the highest judicial authority in Switzerland.

Headquartered in Lausanne, it is the final instance on all appeals against decisions of the highest cantonal courts, as well as the three other federal courts, which deal with criminal, administrative and patent cases, respectively.

This chart shows how the judicial system is organised in Switzerland.

What about the judges?

Swiss judges, both on the cantonal and federal level, are not appointed by the government but elected either by the parliament or by the people.

Surprisingly, while on the federal level and in most cantons, judges must have legal education, in lower courts, the so-called ‘lay judges’ do not need it, reflecting the importance that Switzerland’s system of democracy places on citizen participation.

It is also believed that at lower-level courts people prefer to deal with their peers rather than with professional judges.

For the Federal Court, judges are elected by the parliament for six-year terms.

Under the current system, the parliamentary judiciary committee selects candidates for judges, and MPs then elect from among that group. 

For a flavour of what goes on, these are some of the cases Swiss courts have handled in the past years:

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