Imagine that your neighbour, John, has green fingers. His Thuja hedge is growing over your property line and his apple tree is growing ever taller. As a result, it is blocking your view and casting shade over your property. This year, you lose patience and, under cover of darkness, cut off all the branches and cut back all of the shrubs that cross over to your side. John presses charges. But before the two of you come up before a judge, you must first present the matter to an arbitrator or a justice of the peace.
Fifty-four-year-old Claudia Brägger knows that such disputes aren't rare in Switzerland. She has been a justice of the peace in the Canton of Thurgau for the past 24 years and is currently responsible for Frauenfeld district. In this capacity, she handles about 150 cases a year. Unpaid debts, inheritance wrangles, labour disputes and rows about loans: Brägger has first-hand insight into the many conflicts in which the Swiss are embroiled. She therefore tries to find solutions that avoid the disputing parties ending up in court. In the vast majority of cases, namely about 60% of the time, the dispute centres on unsettled bills. Arbitration proceedings generally last about an hour. "It can be challenging, but you can usually work things out with a settlement or a suggested ruling," commented Brägger. If an agreement can't be reached, Brägger issues a legal action permit, which the parties can then use to go to court within three months.
Millions in savings
The Swiss Association of Justices of the Peace and Arbitrators (SVFV) assumes that justices of the peace solve 50–80% of conflicts. Only 15–20% of cases ultimately end up in court. "This takes the pressure off the judicial system, calms the nerves and saves people money," explained Brägger. After all, mediation by a justice of the piece is far cheaper than a day in court. In the Canton of Thurgau, arbitration costs CHF 120–500, depending on the size of the claim. This would cost far more in court. According to the SVFV, this slashes millions off legal expenses across Switzerland as a whole.
A justice of the peace does not have to be a trained lawyer, but must be well versed in the law and judicial procedures, show empathy and be familiar with negotiation techniques. In the Canton of Thurgau, justices of the peace must also be elected every four years by the local population. Brägger trained as a pastry chef, but she soon found herself in an official role. She first stood for election as a justice of the peace some 24 years ago – as an independent. This isn't possible in other cantons, but it is in Thurgau.
Stay calm. This help to keep conversations calm.
Claudia Brägger, a justice of the peace for the past 24 years
Brägger has developed her negotiation techniques and specialist expertise over the course of her many years in office. Nowadays, there is a CAS course at Lucerne University for would-be justices of the peace, a course Brägger set up herself. The SVFV – of which Brägger is the Vice-Chair and responsible for initial and continuing vocational training – also offers further training courses every year.
«That sets my alarm bells ringing»
Claudia Brägger always tries to be understanding when handling cases. Even so, she is sometimes left feeling amazed. For instance, if she has to arbitrate a dispute over a debt worth just CHF 80. She knows that in situations like these, it's often about hurt feelings. «The alarm bells start ringing in my head the moment I hear the words ‹It's about the principle.›» That's when she has to look elsewhere or to more underlying issues for the cause of the conflict.
Brägger doesn't have a specific strategy for her negotiations. «I listen, summarise the statements and try to ask important questions,» she said. She thinks it is important to take all sides seriously, avoid bias, listen to everyone and try to understand them. But she has one tip: «Stay calm. This help to keep conversations calm.»
The Dispute Festival in Lucerne
Too few issues are argued about in Switzerland. In most cases, they are hashed out in a separate bubble. This is the opinion of the organisers of the Dispute Festival in Lucerne (1–11 May 2021), which is supported by the Migros Cultural Percentage. They want to stir things up with exhibitions in the Kulturkeller Winkel and at St. Peter's Chapel, as well as with performances, films and an audio walk (public and digital). The complete programme can be found here.
How much we're arguing: Facts and figures for Switzerland
- Couples most frequently argue about raising their children or housework (Source: Swiss Federal Statistical Office).
- Of all the Swiss, the people of Ticino argue most with their neighbours. One in ten households there do so, compared with half as many in Switzerland as a whole (Source: TCS dispute barometer 2019).
- Disputes among neighbours last longest in central and eastern Switzerland, where they argue for four times as long on average as those in Ticino (Source: TCS dispute barometer 2019).
- The average neighbourly dispute involving people aged 66 or over lasts twice as long as those among younger people. Namely an entire year (Source TCS dispute barometer 2019).
- Fifty-four percent of disputes are lodged by female home-owners (Source: TCS dispute barometer 2019).
- However, male home-owners are willing to pay 25% more on the cost of legal disputes than their female counterparts (Source: TCS dispute barometer 2019).
Photo/Stage: Anna-Tina Eberhard