A Riigikogu decision to switch to remote working for the month of November was unlawful, the Supreme Court has ruled. Sufficiently compelling reasons to make the switch, which took place amid rising Covid rates, were not present, the court has ruled.
The ruling upheld a complaint from Isamaa MP and Riigikogu party group leader Priit Sibul, who said the decision was made without sufficient opportunity to debate, and in itself was not based on sufficient grounds.
The Tartu-based top court found that as a public body which represents the people, Riigkogu MPs are comparable to the military, the police and other front-line staff, who by the nature of their work have an objective requirement to be present at work.
The chamber found that the role of the Riigikogu in resolving important societal issues is even more crucial in a crisis situation in which the prevailing epidemiological situation can nonetheless be taken into consideration, meaning parliament is not required to set an example for others in enabling teleworking, and its special, constitutional role requires the opposite.
The court's Constitutional Review Chamber of the Supreme Court satisfied Sibul's complaint and declared the decision of the Riigikogu to switch to remote working illegal, though it did not annul parliament's decision retroactively, as this would, it was argued, be manifestly excessive and would disproportionately undermine legal certainty in the present case.
This means that all laws and decisions passed while the Riigikogu was on remote work are not affected and remain valid.
The chamber found that the principle of the free mandate of a member of the Riigikogu guaranteed by the constitution also includes the most direct exercise of the mandate.
The principle of parliamentary democracy also requires that important issues of state life be decided in the conditions of free parliamentary debate.
The right of a member of the Riigikogu to contest a decision of the Riigikogu restricting them also derives from these principles, the court said.
The right of self-organization gives the Riigikogu an extensive room for assessment and decision-making in the organization of its work, and as a rule, judicial control over the exercise of this right is limited only to obvious errors, the court found.
At the same time, this principle presupposes that the members of the Riigikogu are provided with sufficient information and an opportunity for a substantive discussion, which was not the case in the present case.
The chamber found that if the Riigikogu decides on the issue of switching to remote sittings and the situation is not urgent, a substantive discussion should be ensured before the vote and the risks associated with the physical assembly of the Parliament should be analyzed.
The direct exercise of the mandate of a member of the Riigikogu may be restricted in order to ensure the functioning of the parliament, but it may be done only where absolutely necessary - when the situation does realistically does not allow the Riigikogu physically to convene, the court said.
The Supreme Court also agreed that, at the beginning of November, the spread of the coronavirus in Estonia was alarmingly wide, exceeding the European average more than three times.
At the same time, the high general infection rate alone could not justify the 101 Riigikogu MPs going to remote working, the court said.
More than 90 per cent of MPs and Riigikogu staff have been vaccinated against the coronavirus; the risk of serious illness is not high when vaccinated, the court noted. Moreover, in the context of universal access to vaccines, the constitutional justification for other antiviral measures (such as remote working) is diminishing, the court found.
The senior coalition partner, the Reform Party, proposed making the move to remote working on November 8 on the grounds of the high coronavirus rate of spread and the government's urging for employers in Estonian generally to instigate remote working.
The proposal stated that while the level of vaccination of employees and MPs was high, the Riigikogu should be an example for other institutions and companies in its behavior.
The proposal passed a Riigikogu vote the very next day, with 62 votes in favor and 23 against, with the result that plenary sessions were to be conducted remotely and via video link from November 10 to 25.
Sibul filed his complaint on November 18, calling for the decision to be annulled.
Sibul said that the decision infringed his own rights, on the grounds there were no compelling reasons to hold the hearings remotely.
Sibul argued the work of the Riigikogu presupposes direct sittings, including those concerning political debates, discussions and the search for compromises outside the main hall and the commissions, as well as inside.
These tasks cannot be performed as efficiently via teleworking, he said.
Sibul argued that the decision was rushed through also, with an off-agenda sitting on November 9 only, and substantive debate prevented, with only the ability to vote on the issue and a short time permitted for Riigikogu parliamentary groups to meet to discuss their position.
Editor: Andrew Whyte