The legal system is largely federal in nature

The Federal Court

This content was published on August 10, 2009 minutes

The Federal Court, Switzerland's supreme court, is based in Lausanne; the Federal Insurance Court, which deals with cases concerning the state insurance schemes among others, is in Lucerne; and in April 2004, the penal division of the Federal Court took up its work in Bellinzona in Italian-speaking Switzerland.

The Federal Administrative Court opened in Bern in 2007 and is due to move to St Gallen by 2012.

The decentralised location of the Federal Court and its branches is deliberate. It underlines federalism and, above all, the will to respect the separation of powers, with geographical distance between the judiciary and the legislative and executive powers.

The system is, however, complex and expensive.

While the Swiss legal system is largely federal in structure, national law, as defined by the Federal Court, takes precedence over cantonal law.

Criminal law, and more recently, civil law, are federal matters; but organisation and procedures are in the hands of the various cantonal courts.

Thus in some cantons there are still juries; whereas in others, a panel of professional and lay judges hand down verdicts.

However, legislation to streamline the system are underway.

Appeals against cantonal verdicts can end up in the Federal Court. But this court can also try specific federal crimes such as bombings or hijackings. The same goes for breaches of international law and inter-cantonal law.

The Federal Supreme Court in Lausanne has 38 judges and 30 part-time judges. Judges are appointed by parliament, usually assuring party-political parity.

Around 40 per cent of the caseload concerns constitutional matters; the rest is made up of administrative, criminal, civil, and debt actions.

However, unlike many other supreme courts, the Swiss Federal Court cannot interpret federal law.

Thus it cannot decide if a federal law is in line with the constitution. Some verdicts fall into a grey area, but in general parliament keeps a close eye on verdicts which impinge on political matters or freedoms.

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