“Additive” interferences with fundamental rights: Fighting Coronavirus at any price?

von ALEXANDER BRADE

Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic poses a challenge to fundamental rights, and all the more so because various measures taken by public authorities to stop the spread of the virus interact. Nevertheless, even numerous restrictions on fundamental rights may be constitutionally justified with “strong reasons”, as will be shown below.

“In principle, it is possible that various individual encroachments, in themselves insignificant, on areas protected by fundamental rights, in their total effect result in a serious impairment which exceeds the degree of intensity of encroachment that can be constitutionally accepted.” (BVerfGE 123, 186 [266]).

Striking examples are general orders of the Saxony State Ministry of Social Affairs from 20th and 22nd March 2020 due to Coronavirus pandemic: People are now required to maintain a minimum distance of 1.5 m between them, there are closures of all bars and restaurants, etc., restrictions on visiting rules for hospitals and old people’s homes, for example, and, last but not least, it is forbidden to leave your apartment for no good reason (like discharging of professional duties).

Description of the problem

The concept of “additive” interference with fundamental rights (BVerfGE 112, 304 [319]; in detail: Brade, Additive Grundrechtseingriffe) is relatively new and – so far – only known to the German legal system, although its potential threats to fundamental freedoms and human rights exist universally (see only ECJ, Case C‑293/12, para. 37 and 56; ECtHR, App. No. 47095/99, para. 95). The reason is clear: More and more individuals are exposed not only to single acts but also to various measures taken by public authorities, which, regarded individually, restrict a person’s freedom. Concerning Germany, except for Art. 106 sec. 3 clause 4 no. 2 of the Basic Law (Grundgesetz – GG), which obliges the Federation and the Laender (federal states) to avoid excessive burdens on taxpayers (cf. BVerfGE 115, 97 [115 et seq.]), the focus is on Art. 1 sec. 3 GG. It states: “The following rights shall bind the legislature, the executive and the judiciary as directly applicable law.” This not only represents a commitment to individual liberty as a purpose of the Basic Law. It also means that protection against infringements of basic rights has to be effective, which therefore applies to the accumulation of such infringements as well. Otherwise, individual liberty will be gradually eroded through various measures of public authorities, each of which is tolerable when regarded separately. Again quoting the German Federal Constitutional Court: “The Basic Law has not linked protection against impairments of fundamental rights to the term [interference], nor has it provided a content definition.” (BVerfGE 105, 279 [300]).

An attempt at a solution

So the Basic Law requires us to take an accumulation of infringements seriously. However, what does that mean specifically, particularly regarding COVID-19? In my view, only state actions relating to a single person are relevant, because basic rights are, first and foremost, individual rights. Furthermore, all of these measures must simultaneously constitute an interference with one and the same basic right, like the right to move freely (Art. 11 sec. 1 GG). The Basic Law has introduced a differentiated system of basic rights that works and so should not be dismissed lightly (contra Kirchhof, NJW 2006, 732 [734]). Finally, there has to be an inner link between the infringements (Konnexität). There is, in any case, such a link when their objectives overlap. Otherwise, just to clarify matters, this depends on there being a “material connection”, which means that the measures in question must concern the same subject matter, in particular a specific aspect of a fundamental right.

However, “additive” interferences with fundamental rights as just described do not “automatically” violate constitutional requirements. It rather depends on the weighing of considerations – an overall balancing – of all interests including countervailing effects (BVerfGE 130, 372 [392]). In this connection, I recommend modifying the conventional approach, which only considers each infringement separately; this applies particularly to so-called justification under constitutional law (Rechtfertigung). In doing so, each act, as well as their accumulative effect, first has to pass the proportionality test (Verhältnismäßigkeit). It is, therefore, necessary to examine whether these infringements have a legitimate aim and are, to that end, suitable and necessary. Besides, they must be suitably designed in the light of the (overall) weight of the interference(s). Thus, various effects have to be taken into account: the impact of these measures can be amplified, impaired or neutralized by one another (Klement, AöR 134 [2009], p. 35 [81]). Secondly, there is a change of perspective: Instead of examining the loss of individual liberty, we look at what remains of it. The guarantee of “the essence of a basic right” (Wesensgehaltsgarantie, Art. 19 sec. 2 GG) serves this purpose. So, despite an accumulation of infringements a “minimum degree of liberty” has to be preserved.

Action on COVID-19 as an example

Some measures mentioned at the beginning interfere with different fundamental rights of different people; in other words: it is not allowed for them to be “added up”. Here are just a few examples (with details: Edenharter): An order to maintain a minimum distance as well as restrictions on visiting rules for hospitals fall within the scope of protection (Schutzbereich) of Art. 6 GG (Marriage, Family, Children), the general right of personality, or at least the general freedom of action (Art. 2 sec. 1 GG). Closures of all bars and restaurants go hand in hand with restrictions of occupational freedom (Art. 12 sec. 1 GG) of working people, but not of restaurant guests, who are instead affected with regard to Art. 2 sec. 1 GG. However, concerning the freedom of the person (Art. 2 sec. 2 clause 2 GG), the situation is different, since all government measures named above touch upon its scope of protection at least in a factual and indirect manner. Furthermore, these measures all take action simultaneously, are related to the same persons (like someone who is currently not allowed to leave his apartment, not even to visit his family members in a hospital or to enter a restaurant) and fulfill the same function – to prevent the coronavirus from spreading in favor of the elderly and the sick (Art. 2 sec. 2 clause 1 GG).

Against this background, every single of these state actions just as their accumulation – though this may be surprising at first sight – probably is constitutionally justified. Human life constitutes an ultimate value within the order of the Basic Law (BVerfGE 115, 118 [139]), which has to be taken into account in the course of consideration mentioned above. Without any doubt, each infringement, as well as their accumulative effect, must be based on plausible scientific assumptions (skeptical here: Edenharter); the greater the weight of the encroachment gets, the more valid these assumptions must be. However, as scientists are in a dispute concerning the question of whether a curfew – in fact (given the overall weight of the interferences as of yet) or in-law – is an appropriate step, public authorities have a margin of assessment. So, if they conclude that previous restrictions (stay at home, refrain from meeting others, etc.) are insufficient to protect human life due to a high number of deaths, this has to be accepted as long as those (scientific) conditions remain. Even the essence of Art. 2 sec. 2 clause 2 GG would be left unaffected pursuant to Art. 19 sec. 2 GG where and in so far as a curfew – as currently practiced – remains limited in time (like two weeks) and includes specific exemptions (critical Thielbörger/Behlert; Kingreen concerning Art. 8 sec. 1 GG). Subject to these preconditions, a curfew does not require a judicial order according to Art. 2 sec. 2 clause 2 GG in conjunction with Art. 104 sec. 2 GG as well. Otherwise, the “restriction of freedom” (Freiheitsbeschränkung) could reach a level that de facto amounts to a “deprivation of liberty” (Freiheitsentziehung) caught by Art. 104 sec. 2 GG (cf. BVerfGE 149, 293 [319]).

Zitiervorschlag: Alexander Brade, “Additive” interferences with fundamental rights: Fighting Coronavirus at any price?, JuWissBlog Nr. 35/2020 v. 25.3.2020, https://www.juwiss.de/35-2020/

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