How the corona crisis is pushing the federal court to the limit – and pushing digitalization
Federal Court President Ulrich Meyer explains how he worked during the lockdown, how the crisis is driving the digitization of the judiciary and why it could lead to more court cases.
The entrance to the Gotthard building in Lucerne is modern: security gate with metal detector. But the spirit of the Belle Époque still lives inside. Federal Court President Ulrich Meyer chose the Gotthardsaal as the location for the photo session, which is considered one of the most historically valuable rooms in Lucerne. The interior is made of walnut wood, the walls are decorated with fabric paintings.
The Gotthardbahn Board of Directors used to meet here. Today the federal court uses the hall for representative occasions. The Federal Insurance Court moved into the building in 2002 and merged with the Federal Court in 2007. Since then, the two social law departments have been housed here.
Meyer is one of them. That’s why he has an office here and one at his headquarters in Lausanne. He gives the interview in the presidential room. It is so big that social distancing is possible without any problems. The highest judge in Switzerland nods his head in greeting.
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How do you work personally in this extraordinary time?
Ulrich Meyer: The last day I was at the Federal Court headquarters in Lausanne was March 5th. That was the day on which I held the last hearing in the investigation into the events at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona. The Federal Council then took the first decisions to contain the Covid 19 crisis. Since then, I no longer commute between Lucerne and Lausanne, but only work here in the Gotthard building. I remember that the last time I went to a restaurant was on March 16, it was a Monday. On March 17, the administrative commission took its first decisions at the request of the crisis team.
How was the highest court organized in the lockdown?
We have switched to emergency operation. In Lausanne and Lucerne we have set up a standby service with judges, clerks, computer scientists, administrative staff, women and law firm employees. In particular, we were able to continue to deal with priority judgments immediately. The conditions in our seven departments are very different. Some have limited urgency. In others, such as the first public service department, which is faced with liability matters, operations must continue to run quickly. As President, I was on call. Now we pick it up and gradually return to normal operation. However, we continue to enable home work where it makes sense.
Does the Federal Supreme Court have the infrastructure for home offices?
In December 2019, all 38 federal judges wishing to do so were equipped with a laptop. Computer science had advanced so far that the judges had remote access to our system. Most judges took advantage of the offer. In addition, the IT service and members of the General Secretariat are provided with laptops, which give them integral access to all of the court’s IT applications on the go or from home. We were well prepared in this regard. However, we are not quite there yet in the office and with the court clerks. Not all of them have laptops. We configured and delivered 30 additional laptops for key people in the departments and services. The IT service also set up secure access to the professional mail system from home at short notice. As an immediate measure, we finally acquired and distributed around 300 USB sticks to enable secure data exchange when working from home on private computers. Of course, other security measures were also taken.
The Federal Supreme Court makes most of the judgments in the written procedure, the circulation route. Have judgments been made in the home office?
No. The judgments are always approved and opened at Mon Repos in Lausanne or here in the Gotthard building in Lucerne.
For political reasons. The court is not just any business, but also a forum in which opinions are formed. Federal legislation stipulates that the Federal Supreme Court is based in Lausanne and Lucerne. That is why we have been reluctant to grant homework for a long time. However, a certain expansion regarding homework was initiated before the crisis. Under the impact of the crisis, this has intensified. The crisis triggers a development spurt for digitalization at the federal court.
Where is this development going?
We will introduce the electronic judge workstation and are on the way to the electronic court dossier. At the federal court, we are still working with paper dossiers. In just under 50 out of 8,000 cases per year, the complaint is submitted electronically via a certified platform. We finally want to get away from paper and introduce the electronic dossier at the Federal Court. This is also happening with regard to the Justitia 4.0 project for the digitization of justice across Switzerland. In this crisis, its meaning has changed: If Justitia 4.0 was previously desirable, the project is now a necessity.
How is the cooperation between the judges changing?
Basically, it has not changed. We now conduct the weekly judge’s café, which we hold for personal contact between the judges, via a video conference. We also hold administrative meetings via video. This has proven itself, even if it cannot replace the face-to-face conversation.
At the beginning, you mentioned your investigation into the incidents at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona that the CH media newspapers uncovered. Would you have had further hearings if the lockdown hadn’t come?
No, it just so happened that I had already carried out all nine scheduled hearings. The effort was great: the files fill six federal files. I do not comment on the content of the report.
How does the crisis affect the number of cases that the federal court has to deal with?
I can imagine that due to all the legal questions that may arise from the crisis, we will have an increased business input with a certain time lag. In any case, we expect an avalanche of complaints for May 19, because then the deadline will end for all cases that did not have to be processed during the deadline period until April 19.
For years, the Federal Supreme Court has been regularly finding new highs in complaints and complaining about overload. What does a further increase mean?
In 2007, the legislature intended to make the Federal Supreme Court a supreme authority that can focus primarily on the assessment of legal questions, and in particular legal questions of fundamental importance. We should have been relieved of use cases that primarily deal with factual issues. Now I realize: This expectation has not been fulfilled. Instead of 6000 cases per year as we strived for, we now have 8000 or more. This would require a revision of the Federal Supreme Court Act, which the parliament recently rejected. Now we have to take the consequences and reorganize the federal court internally.
Of the 8,000 cases that come in each year, about 1,600 concern the criminal law department. This consists of five federal judges. A five-person department is basically designed for around 1000 cases per year. But if there are 1600, you have to change something. Since the legislature has not acted, we have to help ourselves with a revision of the regulations. My plan is a decision later this year, which will enter into force on January 1, 2021 with transitional provisions.
Will you enlarge the criminal law department?
There are basically three options: we move resources internally or we move materials or we do a combination of both. I can’t say more. This work was delayed by the Covid 19 crisis. The first session had to be postponed.
You will resign as Federal President this year. Will you start again as an ordinary federal judge?
I will be 67 this year and could therefore step back and continue to work solely as a federal judge for a year, because a federal judge can serve until the calendar year in which he turns 68. In the autumn session, however, there will be reelection for the term of office from 2021 to 2026. I will notify the Federal Assembly by June whether I will return. I am sure you understand that I will not announce the decision beforehand in the newspaper.
Finally, a personal question. In the “Aargauer Zeitung” you presented your favorite book: “The Magic Mountain” by Thomas Mann. What did you read during the lockdown?
“The Unteachable Heart” by Salka Viertel. This is also about Thomas Mann. Salka Viertel ran a salon in which he and many other artists traveled. It is very exciting to read how Thomas Mann and his children are portrayed. Historical reading fascinates me. (aargauerzeitung.ch)
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