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Youth protection: What are the rights and obligations of young people?

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For children, growing older means more rights, but also more obligations and responsibility. Driving a car, moving out, getting married: That all comes at the age of 18. So far, so good. But from what age can they drink beer? Can they be held liable for damages? And from what age can they sign a purchase agreement? Leo Loosli provides answers to legal questions from the daily lives of teens.

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    Leo Loosli

    Leo Loosli is a legal expert and works at AXA-ARAG in Market Management and as an expert in the areas of contract, inheritance, family and personal law.

Lina is 14 and wants to hang out in the city with her friends until 11 p.m. on the weekend. What does the law have to say about teenagers going out?

There are no legal provisions governing the age from which young people can go out and until what time. For minors, the decision is at the discretion of the parents or legal guardians. As long as Lina’s parents consent to her staying out until 11 p.m., from a legal perspective there is no reason why she can’t.

Frederick’s father suspects that his 17-year-old son smokes marijuana and has grounded him. Is he allowed to do this?

Since Frederick is still a minor, his parents may prohibit him from going out within the scope of their parental responsibilities. In this case, however, Frederick’s parents are better advised to talk with their son and to address the subject of drug use. As an alternative, some cantons have points of contact for young people regarding drug use. 

15-year-old Nino damaged the neighbor’s car while skateboarding. Do his parents have to pay for the damage if Nino doesn’t have enough money in his account to do so himself?

As a rule of thumb: Parents are responsible for their underage children and are liable for the damage they cause. According to law, such liability only exists in cases where the parents breach their duty of supervision.

A 15-year-old does not require specific parental supervision to ride a skateboard. For this reason, there is no breach of duty in this case. In other words: The neighbor would have little success in bringing legal action against the parents, and must stick with Nino.

However, in practice, the injured party usually contacts the parents directly and makes arrangements for the damage with the help of their liability insurance. It makes sense to do so for two reasons. Firstly, the relationship with the neighbor will not suffer. And secondly, Nino will not start adult life with debt (specifically a certificate of shortfall).

Nils, 17, throws a party. Friends who are already of age bring ecstasy pills and offer them to other people at the party. What is the right thing for Nils to do in this situation?

By giving others ecstasy pills, Nils’ friends are committing a crime, specifically a violation of the law on narcotics. The law makes not only the distribution, sale, or possession of narcotics a crime, but also their use. Thus all the people who take the pills are also committing a crime.

How should Nils respond? Depending on the individual situation, Nils may also be committing a crime. His “inaction” should be expected to qualify as lower-level complicity (so-called aiding and abetting) or, due to specific circumstances, a guarantor role (Nils’ responsibility for other people).

In this situation, Nils would be well advised to get an adult involved and to tell his friends not to hand out ecstasy pills to others at the party or to leave the party entirely. If need be, rescue services like the police must also be notified, for example if pills have already been consumed.

What punishment should Nora, 16, expect for spraying graffiti on a school wall?

By spraying graffiti, Nora is deliberately causing damage to third-party property. Since Nora is still a minor, she will be punished according to juvenile law. The federal law on juvenile criminal law stipulates far more lenient punishments for individual crimes compared with adult criminal law.

Specifically, the catalog of sanctions includes:

  • A reprimand (formal condemnation of the offense; warning),
  • Community service (personal service free of charge  at a social or public institution),
  • Fines (only for those 15 years old and over up to a maximum of CHF 2,000) and
  • Imprisonment (only for those who are 15 years old and over).

In this case, Nora should expect an official warning, community service, or a fine.

In practice, however, few cases lead to criminal proceedings or a sentence. Since in the case of property damage, the offense cannot be prosecuted without a legal complaint from the injured party, first a criminal complaint must be filed before law enforcement agencies can initiate proceedings. Schools often do not file a complaint if the young person agrees to disciplinary measures pursuant to school regulations. Such a measure could be, for example, that Nora must clean the wall in her free time or that she receives a warning/reprimand.

Young people and alcohol

According to youth protection law:

  • Alcohol cannot be sold or given to children and young people under the age of 16.
  • Beer and wine can only be sold or given to people over the age of 16.
  • Liquors, aperitifs, and alcopops can only be sold or given to people over the age of 18.

The age restriction 16/18 for the sale of alcohol is set out in national law and thus applies throughout Switzerland. Some cantons have tightened these restrictions. And some retailers – such as Coop, for example – only sell alcohol to persons aged 18 and over.

Are young people allowed to buy and consume alcopops at the age of 16?

According to the federal law on spirits (Alcohol Act), stores are not allowed to sell spirits (which within the broader sense can also include alcopops) to persons under the age of 18.

However, there is no law which actively prohibits young people from buying and consuming spirits. The laws on youth protection transfer responsibility for the protection of young people to their parents. If a young person buys an alcopop and drinks it, they do not need worry about any legal repercussions. The store that sold the alcopop, on the other hand, runs the risk of a being issued a fine or having their license revoked.

Marie, who is already 16, buys beer at the gas station for her 15-year-old friends who she is out with. Did she commit a crime?

The scenario that Marie buys beer for her younger friends is, of course, problematic when it comes to youth protection. But she has not necessarily committed a criminal offense. The act of “administering substances to children that are hazardous to their health” makes the provision of alcoholic substances in a hazardous amount a criminal offense.

If it is a very small amount and very low-volume alcohol (a shandy, for example), the act is likely not to be deemed a criminal offense. The higher the amount or the stronger the alcohol, the more the act becomes criminal.

Are parents committing a crime if they offer beer to their 15-year-old at home?

In a purely legal sense, the act falls into the category of “administering substances to children that are hazardous to their health” if the parents offer their child an amount of alcohol sufficient to be hazardous to the child’s health. However, the “provision” of smaller amounts (for example, a sip of beer) is not a crime. 

Youth protection in Switzerland

The regulations on youth protection are composed of various federal and cantonal laws. In these laws, the minimum age to consume tobacco and alcohol as well as the permitted whereabouts and duration in public are set out.

Pascal, 16, has concluded a contract with a boxing club; his parents co-signed. Do they have to pay if Pascal can no longer afford the fees?

In this case, it depends on who the contractual party is. If Pascal has signed the contract in his own name and the parents have only signed for formal legal reasons (key word: parental consent), then Pascal is the contractual party. The rights and obligations arising from the contract thus only affect Pascal. For this reason, Pascal’s parents do not have to pay the fees of the boxing club. Regarding the question of who is actually the contractual party, it is worthwhile to read the contract through in advance and to ask questions if anything is unclear (for example, with your legal protection insurance or the contractual partner directly).

In practice, parents probably have a large interest in taking over the costs despite not being liable because the boxing club can initiate debt collection proceedings. If the club does so and no payment is made, a certificate of shortfall will be issued after the execution proceedings have been concluded. The boxing club can then initiate additional collection proceedings against Pascal at a later time. Pascal would then start his adult life with debt and would in some circumstances have difficulty taking out a loan or finding an apartment.

Simon, 17, and his parents are constantly arguing and he wants to move in with his older brother Is he allowed to do this?

In general, young people are only entitled to freely choose their place of residence from the age of 18. Before they reach the age of majority, they cannot just leave their parent’s home if the parents have not given their consent. In individual cases, however, the relationship between the parents and the children may have suffered to such an extent that it is no longer reasonable for the child to remain resident in the joint household, and the Child and Adult Protection Authorities (KESB) can order the children and parents to live apart on order of the parents or the child.

If Simon’s parents consent to him moving out and moving in with his older brother, then Simon can do so. If the parents do not grant their consent to Simon’s request, then he must contact KESB to obtain authorization to move. If there are grounds that make living together seem unreasonable, then KESB will consent to the move.

In which cases can a minor be imprisoned?

Young people can also be sentenced to imprisonment for committing crimes and offenses. Crimes are acts for which the law (adult criminal law) stipulates imprisonment for over three years – for example, aggravated assault. Offenses are acts for which the law requires sanctions of up to three years imprisonment or a fine.

Offenders over the age of 15 can be sentenced to up to one year's imprisonment. If the young offender has already turned 16, they can be sentenced to up to four years.

Amina, 15, doesn’t want to go with her parents and three small siblings on summer vacation. What rights does she have?

From a legal perspective, the decision regarding whether Amina has to go on vacation with her parents or can stay home lies with the legal guardians, namely her parents. If they do not consent to her staying home alone, then she has to comply and go on vacation with them.

14-year-old Elia totally refuses to go to confirmation class and would prefer to leave the church. Is he allowed to do this?

In a legal sense, children are considered to be of age for religious matters from the age of 16. That means that they can also leave the church without the consent of their parents. Since Elia is not yet 16, he still needs his parents’ consent to do so. The same applies to confirmation and the associated preparation classes. If Elia does not want to go, then he needs his parents’ consent for this too.

Since confirmation serves as a way to include young people in the church community and they are recognized by the church from that point on as mature Christians, it makes sense to talk with the child about the subject of church membership. Confirmation usually takes place between the ages of 15 and 16, i.e. on the threshold of the age of maturity in religious matters.

The mother of Robin, 15, regularly reads the messages on his cell phone. Is that allowed?

With reference to the “breach of confidentiality of written material”, parents are not entitled to open or read the messages of their children who are able to make sound judgment without a special reason for doing so or the explicit consent of their children. The related provision also includes electronic messages with end-to-end encoding, such as WhatsApp messages.

When Simon’s mother regularly reads the messages on his cell phone, she is committing a punishable offense through (repeated) breach of confidentiality of written material. If Simon files a legal complaint, she can expect to be fined.

What changes from the age of 18?

  • Legally valid signature (young people may sign rental agreements, purchase agreements, or the absence booklet themselves)
  • Right to vote as a Swiss citizen; moreover, 18-year-olds can also be elected to political office (e.g. municipal councilor or mayor)
  • Alcohol consumption – spirits and alcopops may also be purchased and consumed
  • Take practical test and acquire driving license – category A restricted (up to 35 kW); since 2021, a 125 ccm can be driven from age 16
  • Marriage
  • Post will be addressed directly, e.g. from the company providing the apprenticeship, from the school, or government offices.
  • Compulsory military service: As a Swiss male, you enter military service in the army.
  • Duty to pay taxes: All people of age must complete a tax declaration even if they have not earned any income. Otherwise, they must pay a fine.
  • Bank or post account: In Switzerland, you can open an account from the age of 19 and are personally responsible for it.

17-year-old Selma and her 19-year-old boyfriend want to get married. Her parents have given their consent. Are they allowed to get married?

In Switzerland, you can only get married if you are 18 years of age or older – in other words, able to exercise sound judgment and of age.

For this reason, Selma and her boyfriend must wait until Selma’s 18th birthday to marry, even though they have the consent of her parents.

Janina, 16, wants to have the pill prescribed to her without her parents knowing. Is that allowed?

The decision to receive the pill from a doctor falls in the category of highly personally rights. It requires the ability to exercise sound judgment, i.e. the ability to act reasonably in a certain situation. In general, it can be assumed that a 16-year-old is mature enough to decide regarding choosing a means of contraception.

Specifically: Janina is allowed to have the pill prescribed to her without asking her parents. She also does not have to worry that the doctor will inform her parents. Due to medical confidentiality, the doctor is not allowed to provide information to her parents.

Ronja is 15 and wants to have sex with her 20-year-old boyfriend. Is that allowed?

The age of consent in Switzerland is 16. Anyone who has sexual contact with a child under the age of 16 is committing a crime. Sexual acts with children under the age of 16 are not punishable by law if the age difference between the participants is no more than three years. If the young person has turned 16, they are considered to be above the age of consent and may have sex with people of any age as long as they are also above the age of consent or the age difference is less than three years.

Since Ronja is only 15 and her boyfriend is already 20 (and thus more than three years older), he would be breaking the law by having sex with Ronja.

What is considered to be the age of consent?

It is assumed that children and young people under the age of 16 are not mature enough to decide regarding their sexual relationships by themselves.

For this reason, the age of consent is 16 in Switzerland. This means that every sexual act with a child under the age of 16 is a crime. 

The age of consent is designed to protect children and young people against experiences that could harm their sexual development.

Gian, 16, wants to by a moped with the money he earns as an apprentice. Can he do so against his parents’ will?

Gian has only a restricted capacity to act: able to exercise sound judgment, but is a minor. The contract can only be concluded if the parents grant their consent to the conclusion of a legal transaction in advance or afterward. Exceptions to this rule are the purchase of items in the amount of a child’s allowance.

Since the price of a moped probably exceeds a child’s allowance, Gian’s parents can refuse to grant consent. In other words: Gian cannot buy the moped against his parents will.

Romina, 16, wants to quit her apprenticeship, and her parents are against it. Can they force their daughter to continue the apprenticeship.

Romina has only a restricted capacity to act. To duly sign an apprenticeship agreement, the parents must give their consent and co-sign the contract. Likewise, the parents’ consent is required to dissolve the apprenticeship agreement.

From a purely legal point of view, Romina can thus be compelled by her parents to complete the apprenticeship in an orderly manner.

In such situations, we recommend parents first talk with their children. In the end, it is worthwhile to contact the company offering the apprenticeship, and if necessary to consult the Federal Office for Professional Training, to find potential solutions. In this way, you can ensure that the young person can complete their training and be prepared for the labor market.

Vanessa has started her apprenticeship and lives at home. Her parents want her to pay CHF 200 from her wages for rent and food. Is this legal?

In general, young people are entitled to administer and dispose of income they earn themselves. However, the law stipulates that young people who still live together with their parents and who have a regular income (apprentice’s wage) must make an appropriate contribution to the household – if the parents request it.

The law does not set out which sum is deemed to be appropriate in individual cases. In extreme cases, the appropriate amount may even cover actual costs. However, we recommend a sum of around 10 to 20 percent of the apprentice’s wage. 

Depending on the amount of the apprentice salary, the CHF 200 Vanessa's parents are asking for are probably reasonable. Vanessa can therefore be obligated to hand over CHF 200 per month, even if this amount exceeds the recommendation of 10 to 20 percent.

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Eron, 16, wants to work in a carpentry firm during summer vacation. His parents are against it. Can they forbid him to take the vacation job?

In this case, Eron has only a restricted capacity to act (able to exercise sound judgment, but is a minor). As such, he requires his parents’ consent to legally sign an employment contract for a vacation job. Since his parents do not consent to Eron working in a carpentry firm over the summer, he will not be able to start the job without their consent.

Lina is 14 and would like to work as a babysitter. How many hours is she allowed to work per week?

According to employment law and the Ordinance on the protection of young people at work, children can take on light work from the age of 13. Light work is understood to mean work that does not have negative effects on the health, safety, or development of the young person, and that does not restrict their performance or attendance at school. This includes, for example, delivering newspapers and advertisements. During term time, this light work cannot exceed three hours per day or a total of nine house per week. During school vacation, employment is permitted for up to half of the duration of the vacation, but a maximum of eight hours per day and thus 40 hours per week.

Lina can thus work as a babysitter during term time for up to nine hours per week, although this cannot be for more than three hours per day. During the five-week summer break, she can then babysit for two-and-a-half weeks, or a total of 100 hours. She cannot exceed 40 hours per week or eight hours per day.

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