A Guide to German Courts
A Guide to German CourtsUpdated on Thursday 23rd September 2021
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The legal system in Germany is based on the Civil Code and the cour The main legal resources are the Constitution, the laws passed by the Federal Parliament as well as the EU regulations and directives. For companies operating in the country, other relevant legal regulations are found in the Commercial Code, apart from the Civil Code.
The judicial system in Germany is made of ordinary courts, specialized courts (for administrative, labor or fiscal matters, for example) and constitutional courts.
Working with our team of lawyers in Germany is useful in all commercial or civil cases, especially for foreign investors who are required to understand the differences between the German legal system and the Anglo-American one, for example.
What is the role of the ordinary courts in Germany?
The German ordinary courts usually rule in criminal and civil matters such as marriage and family disputes. Non-contentious cases are also tired in ordinary courts. The ordinary courts in Germany are organized in local courts (Amtsgerichte), regional courts (Landgerichte), higher regional courts (Oberlandesgerichte) and the Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof). Local and regional courts serve as first instance courts, while the higher regional courts and the Federal Court are appellate bodies. The District Court is the one that hears cases in which the dispute has a value of over 5,000 euros.
What are the cases treated by the specialized courts in Germany?
The German specialized courts are divided into labor courts, social courts, administrative courts and financial courts. As their name state, German labor courts will rule in matters derived from the private law in employment disputes. Administrative courts will trial cases that fall under the jurisdiction of public administrative law. The social courts in Germany will rule in litigation cases coming social security matters. German financial courts are specialized in taxation matters.
Below, our lawyers in Germany summarize some of the cases that can be brought to specialized courts:
- Administrative courts: dealing with wrongful administrative acts that can refer to how the government has treated citizens.
- Labor law courts: cases involving employment disputes, collective bargaining agreements or workers compensation claims.
- Financial courts: these specialize in tax-related litigation, for example, disputes between taxpayers and the tax authorities.
- Family Courts: deal with family and marriage matters, child custody or child-parent matters as well as adoption and alimony rights.
- Probate Courts: they issue inheritance certificates as well as handle matters concerning the enforcement of wills and other inheritance issues.
- The Federal Patent Court: this court hears cases involving trademark registration in Germany, patents and generally intellectual property cases.
For labor issues, the Federal Social Court is the highest instance and the Federal Administrative Court is the highest administrative law court. In tax matters, the Federal Finance Court is the highest ranking one. A specialist from our team of attorneys in Germany can give you more information about the specialized courts, according to the type of dispute.
What is the Constitutional Court in Germany?
The Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) is the highest court in the German judicial system. It can rule in constitutional matters and it is known to have contributed to the development of the Federal Republic of Germany. The difference between the German Federal Constitutional Court and federal courts is that the Constitutional Court can be appealed to in civil or criminal matters only if constitutional rights have been breached, otherwise it cannot act as an appellate body in the judged case.
How do judges operate within the German judicial system?
As Germany has a complex judiciary system, the courts can be constituted of one or several judges, helped by lay judges. Lay judges are usually German citizens employed by a committee for a determined amount of time. Judges are appointed depending on the gravity of the case and can vary from one judge in small offenses to up to three or even five judges and two lay judges. Lay judges are politically employed only in ordinary and specialized courts in Germany.
A judge in Germany must be a citizen and he is expected to pass two state examinations, the first after the completion of the academic studies and the second once the practical legal training is concluded. It is customary for them to work initially on probation and then to be assigned to a certain court, although the court can change during one’s career.
Litigation in Germany
The German Code of Civil Procedure is the legal resource for the civil litigation process in the country. Once the jurisdiction is determined, for example, if the case is administrative in nature, financial or social/labor related, the court of the first instance is determined by the amount of the dispute. This is not the case when the case concerns a very specific matter and it applies to the exclusive jurisdiction.
The steps can be summarized as follows:
- Complaint: this is when the plaintiff initiates the court proceedings and files a complaint with the competent court; the complaint states the parties and the relief.
- Notice to the defendant: the court then served the statement of claim to the defendant; it can also be served abroad when required.
- Defense: the defendant has a pre-determined period during which he can respond and file a statement of defense.
- Preliminary hearing: this is an optional phase that can be set by the court; in all cases, briefs will be exchanged by the parties.
- Default judgment: this only takes place if the defendant fails to answer the statement of claim.
- Oral hearing: this is for the purpose of taking evidence and hearing witnesses; in complex cases, it can be adjourned.
- Settlement: it is common for a lawsuit to end with the parties coming to an agreement, on the terms suggested by the court.
Please remember that this is only a general list of steps. One of our lawyers in Germany can provide additional information on the procedure based on an initial evaluation of the case.
Arbitration is often a preferred method of solving commercial or labor disputes as well as other types of disputes that may concern local and foreign investors. It is common to include an arbitration clause in service or business agreements because oftentimes this method yields satisfactory results with fewer costs and faster than in the case of court proceedings.
Plaintiffs should know that is it common for courts in Germany to apply limitation periods, a time limit within which a case can be brought to court. The general limitation period is three years. One of the experts at our law firm in Germany can give you more information.
The duration of the court proceedings will depend on the case particularities, its complexity and the number of other cases heard by that court (especially when they are cases that extensively evidence-based).
You can contact our law firm in Germany for any questions about the judicial system or if you need legal advice in litigation cases.