Tallinn Administrative Court on Wednesday issued rulings on two administrative matters in which it declared the dismissal of officers who had refused to vaccinate against COVID-19 from service unlawful.
The court agreed with the plaintiffs' position that the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) has implemented a vaccine requirement that cannot be considered lawful, announced the law center of the NGO Foundation for the Protection of Family and Tradition (SAPTK), which represented the officers.
The court found that the imposed vaccination requirement as a restriction of fundamental rights was neither purposeful, appropriate nor reasonable. The court found that by tying compliance with the requirement to vaccinate to the preservation of one's position, the EDF effectively implemented compulsory vaccination.
With an order issued last August 31, Commander of the EDF Lt. Gen. Martin Herem implemented a requirement that all members of the EDF be vaccinated.
Judge Andreas Paukštys said that in a situation where it is already known that people have died or experienced serious side effects (personal injury), such compulsory vaccination is not justified, and that measures to prevent the spread of the virus focused exclusively on vaccination cannot be necessary or reasonable.
In assessing the vaccination requirements imposed by the EDF, the court stressed that measures aimed solely and exclusively at vaccination, which is tied to the consequence of dismissal from service if not implemented, clearly refer to the fact that vaccination itself, not the prevention of the spread of the virus, is the objective.
"The court is of the opinion that vaccination and the related dismissal of unvaccinated individuals from service cannot be a legitimate goal of the infringement of fundamental rights," the administrative court explained. "This is a measure to ensure occupational health and safety and a restriction infringing on fundamental rights. The court stresses that restrictions infringing on fundamental rights cannot be implemented for restriction's sake. Likewise the goal of implemented restrictions cannot be tied to the absence thereof. It is for this reason that the goals of the disputed requirement are not legitimate, and thus it already follows here that restrictions aimed at such a goal cannot be proportional."
The court also noted that required vaccination (i.e. making continuing service dependent on vaccination) cannot be implemented for each individual employee or service member via risk assessment.
"Despite the vaccination requirement included in the risk assessment, dismissal from service as a more extreme option must be assessed on an individual basis for each service member," it said, adding that compulsory release from service is in itself a serious consequence for a EDF service member, infringing on their constitutional right to their freedom of profession.
According to the court, the EDF has not proven that the restrictions imposed have an immediate link with a reduction in infections and severe illness in their collective.
The court also highlighted that while the EDF justified the implementation of the vaccination requirement on grounds of ensuring Estonia's national defense capability, such a justification is not actually convincing. The court is of the opinion that not a single discernible justification or consideration exists that would allow one to conclude that dismissing unvaccinated service members from service would truly help maintain Estonia's national defense capability.
The administrative court also noted that the implementation of its vaccine requirement may not have restricted the spread of COVID-19 in the EDF but rather encouraged it, as in connection with the vaccine requirement, the EDF abandoned the implementation of other measures for limiting the spread of the virus, such as regular COVID testing.
The EDF has until the end of September to appeal the administrative court's rulings.
Editor: Aili Vahtla