THE FEDERAL SUPREME COURT AND THE FEDERAL COURTS OF FIRST INSTANCE
The Federal Supreme Court
The Federal Supreme Court is the highest judicial authority in Switzerland. It rules in the final instance on all appeals against decisions of the highest cantonal courts, the Federal Criminal Court, the Federal Administrative Court and the Federal Patent Court. The court ensures that Swiss federal law is correctly applied in individual cases and that the rights of citizens enshrined in the constitution are protected.
As the court of final instance, the Federal Supreme Court rules on cases from almost all areas of law. When an appeal is filed, it examines whether the law was correctly applied in the contested decision and thus ensures the uniform application of federal law throughout the country. Its decisions contribute to the development of the law and to its adaptation to new circumstances. The other courts and the administrative authorities use the decisions of the Federal Supreme Court as a reference and adopt their principles. Procedures before the Federal Supreme Court take place in writing. There are no court hearings with plaintiffs and defendants giving testimony and lawyers pleading their cases. The Federal Supreme Court bases its decisions on facts as they are established by the lower instances and described in the records of the previous proceedings. If the Federal Supreme Court concludes that a lower court has decided incorrectly, it overturns the contested decision and if necessary sends it back to the previous instance for a new decision. In addition to its work as the highest judicial authority, the Federal Supreme Court exercises administrative supervision over the Federal Criminal Court, the Federal Administrative Court and the Federal Patent Court. The Federal Supreme Court is based in Lausanne and is divided into seven divisions, each with responsibility for decisions in their specific area of law: two public law divisions, two civil law divisions, one criminal law division and two social law divisions. The latter two are based in Lucerne. The General Secretariat is responsible for the court’s administrative duties.
The 38 Federal Supreme Court judges are elected by the United Federal Assembly (National Council and Council of States) on the recommendation of the parliamentary Judiciary Committee. The recommendations are based on considerations of professional experience, language, region and political party affiliation. Federal Supreme Court judges are elected for a six-year term of office with no restriction on how many times they may be re-elected. There is, however, an upper age limit of 68. The United Federal Assembly appoints one of the serving judges as president and one as vice-president of the Federal Supreme Court. In addition, there are 19 Federal Supreme Court substitute judges and a further 280 positions for court clerks and other court employees.
The Federal Criminal Court
The Federal Criminal Court hears criminal cases which, due to their subject matter or importance, are subject to federal jurisdiction. In addition, the Court rules on appeals against decisions made by federal prosecution authorities, in mutual assistance cases and in disputes over jurisdiction.
Most criminal cases are decided in the first instance by cantonal courts. By law, only certain categories of offences fall under federal jurisdiction and are decided by the Federal Criminal Court. These include offences against federal interests, explosives offences, international cases of white-collar crime, cases relating to organised crime, corruption and money laundering, and offences related to civil aviation or war material. In response to appeals, the Federal Criminal Court also reviews orders made by federal prosecution authorities, and decisions made under administrative criminal law and in cases of mutual assistance in criminal matters. In addition, it rules on conflicts of jurisdiction involving prosecution authorities. Most decisions can be appealed to the Federal Supreme Court.
The Federal Criminal Court was incepted in 2004 and since then, is located in Bellinzona. It is currently divided into a Penal Chamber, a Lower Appeals Chamber and a Higher Appeals Chamber. The judges are elected by the Federal Parliament for renewable six-year terms. The Court counts 21 judges (18.4 full-time positions) and 12 deputy judges. They are assisted by ca. 60 staff members (52.5 full-time positions).
The Federal Administrative Court
The Federal Administrative Court handles complaints against decisions made by administrative authorities of the Federal Administration. Each year, Switzerland’s largest federal court rules in around 7,500 cases relating to a very broad range of areas.
The Federal Administrative Court handles a very broad range of areas including the environment, transport, energy, taxation, education, economics, competition, social insurance, health, naturalisation as well as legislation on foreign nationals and asylum seekers. The issues are often far-reaching from a social standpoint. Examples include decisions of principle in asylum-related cases or in major transport and infrastructure projects. In addition to rulings of federal administrative authorities, in certain areas, the Federal Administrative Court may also examine complaints against decisions made by cantonal authorities.
Generally speaking, the judgments of the Federal Administrative Court may be appealed to the Federal Supreme Court. In certain areas (e.g. asylum), the Federal Administrative Court is the court of last instance.
The Federal Administrative Court is composed of six divisions, each responsible for a specific area of legislation. The judges of the Federal Administrative Court are elected by the United Federal Assembly for a six-year term.
Created back in 2007, the Federal Administrative Court has been based in St. Gallen. Each year, the court rules in around 7,500 cases. With 69 full-time positions covered by the judges and a further 303 by the court staff, the Federal Administrative Court is Switzerland’s largest federal court.
Seat: St. Gallen
The Federal Patent Court
The Federal Patent Court handles patent disputes, mainly patent infringement cases and nullity actions. The involvement of judges with technical expertise enables cases to be processed swiftly and cost-effectively.
Technical inventions, which often come at considerable expense, are afforded valuable legal protection in the form of patents. In a dispute, the Federal Patent Court decides whether a patent for a technical innovation is legally valid and whether granted patent rights are infringed by a product or process. The Federal Patent Court may also handle other patent-related claims, such as cases where there is dispute over who holds a given patent, or how a patent may be used within the framework of a licence. Decisions of the Federal Patent Court may be appealed to the Federal Supreme Court.
The judges of the Federal Patent Court are elected by the Federal Assembly for a six-year term. The involvement of judges with technical expertise enables cases submitted to the Federal Patent Court to be processed swiftly and cost-effectively since there is no need for external technical expert opinions, which tend to be costly and time-consuming. A high percentage of cases are settled by compromise between the parties to the dispute.
Created in January 2012, the Federal Patent Court is based in St. Gallen. A particular feature of the Federal Patent Court is that English may be used for submissions and at hearings instead of a national language of Switzerland (German, French, Italian or Romansh) if both parties in the dispute give their consent.
Seat: St. Gallen