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Home News Covid-19: Swiss court gives mixed ruling on political gathering limits

Covid-19: Swiss court gives mixed ruling on political gathering limits

Published on 03/09/2021

The Federal Court, Switzerland’s highest court, on Friday ruled that a 15-person limit on political gatherings in Bern during the pandemic was unconstitutional, but it admitted a limit of 300, introduced by canton Uri.

The Federal Court was ruling on two appeals concerning anti-coronavirus restrictions introduced by cantons Bern and Uri. It noted that last year’s federal decree introducing coronavirus measures under an “exceptional situation” did not include restrictions on political gatherings. The cantonal limits concerned are no longer in force now.

The Federal Court judges ruled by a majority of 4-1 that canton Bern’s 15-person limit on political gatherings introduced in November 2020 was contrary to freedom of assembly. They thus granted an appeal by several left-wing political parties and organisations.

The court did not accept canton Bern’s argument that the measure was justified because of the large number of demonstrations that take place in the federal capital. A majority of judges deemed that such a low number was tantamount to a ban on demonstrations. They also stressed the need for public opinions to be heard, especially at a time of crisis. This, they pointed out, was also one of the federal government’s reasons for excluding political gatherings from its exceptional coronavirus measures.

The court discussion centred on proportionality. It admitted a 300-person limit introduced by canton Uri in March 2021, throwing out an appeal against it. The court deemed that this limit fell within the discretion of the cantonal authorities and did not render political gatherings meaningless.

Cantons welcome ruling

Both cantons Bern and Uri welcomed the court ruling. The Bern cantonal government said it confirmed cantons’ right to impose restrictions under the federal law on epidemics, depending on the situation. It reiterated that the 15-person limit had been introduced at a time when the epidemiological situation was “tense and uncertain” and that the obligation to wear masks in public gatherings was often being ignored. 

On the other hand, opponents of government coronavirus restrictions called the ruling a “black day for democracy”.

Appellants also generally welcomed the ruling. The Progressive Association of Bern Democratic Jurists said it showed that fundamental rights and the principles of rule of law also apply during crises and that restrictions are only admissible within a clearly established judicial framework. This is a fundamental decision for the future, it added.