Get the best of both worlds: a professional German judge in a non-public civil proceeding
Parties to civil litigation often fear the public nature of a lawsuit, be it in the USA or in Germany. This is especially true for commercial and corporate cases as well as any litigation involving celebrities. The parties do not want their competitors and the public to learn about confidential business matters or — in case of celebrities — their private lives.
Therefore, many businesses and high profile individuals use arbitration clauses in their contracts to avoid ending up in a court room ful of reporters. However, arbitration is usually significantly more expensive compared to a “normal” German court case, because the arbitrators are high profile lawyers from big law firms who charge hourly rates north of EUR 500 easily. This is particularly trie in Germany where the statutory court fees are comparatively low (see here).
Furthermore, picking the right arbitrator(s) is difficult and time consuming. The parties need to agree on a competent lawyer who is available in the near future and who’s law office does not have a conflict of interest.
Mediation / Arbitration at German High Courts
In many cases, the ideal solution to this may be to opt for a German “Güterichterverfahren“, an open mediation / arbitration proceeding which takes place before a German high court judge (Güterichter) and to which the basic principles of the German civil procedure rules do apply. However, such a Güteverfahren is entirely confidential and the parties are free to define the scope of the dispute, i.e. they can include additional matters to achieve an overall solution. The German mediation / arbitration hearings in the Güterichterverfahren usually take place at the German court house but behind closed doors. There are official hearing minutes (Protokoll) but they are only available to the parties, not to the public.
What are the advantages of German high court arbitration?
German civil law judges actively encourage the parties to a legal dispute to consider such a court arbitration proceeding, even if a “normal” civil lawsuit has already been filed, see section 278 para. 5 German Civil Procedure Code. The advantages of this German high court arbitration are:
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Here’s why you can’t find any Process Servers in Germany
So you are a US, Canadian or British lawyer who needs to serve court papers to a party who is resident in Germany? Since you read this post, you have probably already realized that googling “Process Server Germany” does not get you anywhere. The simple explanation for why you are having such a hard time to find decent German process service providers on the internet: There aren’t any.
Germany has no tradition of instructing private process servers. No German lawyer would use them to deliver domestic legal documents to anyone who is resident in Germany. Because, under German civil procedure rules, they would simply see no need for it.
This post explains why the process server business sector never caught on in Germany and what German lawyers do in order to prove delivery of their legal papers.
Then how do German Lawyers serve Legal Documents?
Firstly, in German civil litigation, the German civil court usually serves the documents to the respective parties, witnesses and experts. This does not only refer to the court orders, but to all correspondence between the court and parties. While direct service from one party to the other is possible under german civil procedure rules, this is the exception to the rule. Since everyone who lives in Germany must be officially registered with the resident’s registration office (Einwohnermeldeamt), everyone — at least in theory — has an official registered private address and can be served with documents by simply sending those documents to said address.
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Avoid the #1 Litigation Blunder: Incomplete or incorrectly spelled Company Names of German Defendants
In corporate litigation, there can be no “close enough” approach when it comes to the designation of the Plaintiff or Defendant. A litigation lawyer who sues a German company must be dead-on with all factual information about the parties. The name of each company, corporation or partnership involved in the German civil procedure must be absolutely precise, complete and up to date.
Otherwise, under German civil procedure rules, you may lose the lawsuit. Simply because you have sued the wrong defendant. The German civil procedure buzzwords for this problem are “falscher Beklagter” and “fehlende Passivlegitimation”.
Even if the (incorrectly designated) defendant remains entirely passive throughout the German civil lawsuit, i.e. the Defendant does not object to anything and your client is thus awarded a German default judgment (Versäumnisurteil), the client’s joy about the German court judgment will most likely be short-lived, since chances are that the client will soon learn that the judgment is unenforceable.
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Checklist for (uncontested or contested) Divorce Proceedings in Germany
The German statutes dealing with the divorce of a marriage and the substantive requirements for the same are s. 1564 to 1568 German Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch, BGB). The specific civil procedure rules applicable to divorce cases in Germany are contained within s. 133 FamFG (German Code on Family Matters) which also refers to certain sections of the German Code of Civil Procedure.
Different sets of procedural rules apply to the various aspects of a German divorce (e.g. rules for the divorce itself, for maintenance, property separation, pension redistribution, child custody etc.). This makes it somewhat tricky to identify the correct set of rules, even for German lawyers if they are not experts in family law matters. In case you think we make German divorce procedure rules sound overly complicated, here is a typical Family Procedure statute. Check it out for yourself:
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How to get Equitable Relief (Equitable Remedy) under German Law
Equitable relief, also known as equitable remedies, is a legal concept which was historically developed by the old English courts. Thus, the terms equitable relief and equitable remedy are only being used by lawyers in common law jurisdictions where such judicial remedies are still available today.
In practice, seeking equitable relief means that a Plaintiff asks the court to award a non-monetary judgment against a Defendant. For example, an order requiring the Defendant to do something, i.e. to perform a specific act (thus the legal term “specific performance”); or an order requiring the defendant to refrain from doing something (this is typically called an “injunction”, in German “Unterlassung”).
Contracts drafted by lawyers in common law jurisdictions contain Equitable Remedy Clauses as standard boilerplate clauses. Lawyers from non-common law jurisdictions (like Germany, France or Spain), usually do not really understand what to make of these terms, especially since the expression “equitable” is not self explanatory. Still, German business executives sign contracts and CDAs which contain such equitable remedy clauses all the time, often without having a real clue what this would mean in case of a legal dispute.
The situation becomes especially confusing if a German lawyer uses an English language contract template (which is based on English or US law and thus contains such equitable relief clauses) and then simply modifies the template by making the contract subject to German laws and giving German courts exclusive jurisdiction. This happens all the time in German-British or German-US business relationships. Sometimes applicable law and jurisdiction clauses are changed at the last minute when the parties want to close the deal and the executives think it a good idea to agree on German, Austrian or Swiss law as a “compromise”. In all these German speaking countries, no lawyer or judge will know what equitable relief is. What will happen in an international legal dispute, if the business partners must go to a German (or Austrian or Swiss) court of law and find such an equitable remedy clause in the relevant agreements?
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The System of German Civil Law
German law is a traditional civil law system based on Roman law principles (more precisely on the eastern roman emperor Justinian’s Code) and also heavily influenced by the Napoleonic Code. In modern times, obviously, European Union law has modified German civil law, especially in the areas of contract law, business law and consumer rights. In contrast to the common law systems of Anglo-American jurisdictions, the German law system is based on a comprehensive compendium of statutes, i.e. thousands of laws (Gesetze) and regulations (Verordnungen). We explain the German statutes most relevant for German civil litigation in this post.
German Judicial System
While, strictly speaking, German judges are not bound by the judgments of other courts (precedent), not even by the rulings of the Bundesgerichtshof (BGH), i.e. Germany’s Federal Court of Justice, the judgements by the German higher courts (Oberlandesgerichte and BGH) are usually being followed by German judges in the lower courts. Thus, where the facts of a case are similar to a case which was already decided by an Oberlandesgericht or even the Bundesgerichtshof, a court will usually not depart from the view of the OLG or BGH. This chart shows how the German civil courts are structured and how many judges hear a German civil lawsuit:
More information on litigation and legal fees in Germany is available in these posts:
- Making a Court Claim for Money in Germany: It’s actually quite easy
- Standard of Proof in German Civil Litigation
- German Litigation Experts explain Civil Procedure Rules
- A German Claimant can’t be his own Witness
- Compensation for a wrecked Car under the German Law of Torts
- Does German Law of Torts know the Egg Shell Skull Rule?
- How expensive is a German Lawsuit?
- Expert Reports on German Law
For legal advice on German civil procedure and how to successfully litigate in Germany, contact the international litigation experts and trial lawyers of GrafLegal.
Copyright & Disclaimer All posts are copyrighted material. This blog is made available by Graf & Partners for educational purposes as well as to give you general information on German law, not to provide specific legal advice. Simply reading this blog does, of course, not result in any attorney client relationship between you and Graf & Partners. The blog should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice provided by a licensed professional attorney in a specific legal matter.
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Checklist: Effective Defense against a Civil Action in Germany
In this post, we explain how to best react and defend your case when you find yourself at the receiving end of a German civil lawsuit. More specifically, how to avoid making major blunders right at the early stages of German civil proceedings.
Rule 1: Do not ignore letters from a German civil court
This piece of advice appears obvious but, in our experience, it nevertheless happens quite often: Many clients tend to either fully ignore such legal correspondence or to at least delay dealing with the matter until important procedural deadlines have already expired. Such deadlines, for example for the submission of a formal reply and for the application to dismiss the case, are set by the German civil court in the very first court order. These initial deadlines set by the German court are so called “Notfristen” which means that they cannot be extended and you can not be reinstated if you miss to adhere to them.
Thus, whatever you will eventually decide to do about the lawsuit, you must first ensure that you fully understand what the letter from the court (or from the opponent’s lawyer) says and what the relevant time limits are. Such initial letters from a German civil court typically inform you about the fact that you have been sued in Germany and for what. They usually also contain either a specific calendar date or a period of time (e.g. two weeks from the date of service of the letter) within which you need to respond to the court.
At this stage of the proceedings you should:
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Workshop on German Civil Procedure for U.S. Litigation Lawyers
Know and effectively use the tools of German Civil Procedure
Due to Brexit, many international businesses shift their focus from Britain to Germany when it comes to contract drafting in general and jurisdiction clauses in particular (see brochure “Contracts in Continental Law“). Why? As long as Britain was still a member of the EU, many German, Austrian and other continental European CEO’s were willing to accept English law as well as the jurisdiction of English courts. This was often a compromise reached in the negotiations between the contract lawyers of the U.S. and the German parties.
Those days are over. After Brexit, European Union law does no longer apply in Britain, which makes it pretty much unacceptable for the German (Austrian, French etc) side to accept English law as the governing law for the business relationship. Instead, the contract lawyers of businesses located in continental European countries insist more and more on their domestic substantive and procedural laws to apply. Therefore, United States law firms that work internationally will be increasingly confronted with cross-border civil and commercial litigation cases that take place in Germany or Austria.
Bootcamp for practicing U.S. attorneys and in-house lawyers
Our 2 day seminar “How to litigate in Germany” introduces United States trial lawyers to the very different world of German civil procedure. The focus is on making non-German litigators aware of the many differences compared to a U.S. civil lawsuit, thus enabling them to effectively collaborate with the German trial lawyers in an international U.S.-German civil case.
Experienced German litigator Bernhard Schmeilzl cuts right to the chase: No boring lectures on theoretical isues, but hands-on practical advice on how to win civil lawsuits in Germany. Including some tips and tricks on how to unnerve your adversary by “being American on purpose”, for example by naturally applying certain U.S. procedural tools and tactics which, normally, are not used in a German lawsuit (written witness statements or even video depositions). If smartly used, such an approach can somewhat unhinge the opponent.
Who is the workshop for?
United States lawyers who wish to advise their U.S. clients with business ties to Europe on the basics of how to litigate in Germany (and Austria). U.S. law firms that provide legal advice to German business clients in order to understand their German client’s expectations with regard to litigation and arbitration. United States lawyers who are dealing with international litigation and who strive to better understand the tactics and strategies in a German civil case. American legal scholars with an interest in the practical side of German civil litigation.
What does the workshop cover?
The key topics we explain and discuss in our German civil procedure workshops for United States litigators are:
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How to litigate a personal injury claim under German civil law
The general legal requirements to successfully sue someone in Germany based on tort are set out in title 27 of the German Civil Code, sections 823 et seqq. But don’t get your hopes up too high! In comparison to the USA and Britain, German courts usually award significantly less money when it comes to damage claims. The amount of compensation for pain and suffering (Schmerzensgeld) which is granted by German civil courts in personal injury cases is ridiculously low in the eyes of a U.S. litigation lawyer. A severed thumb, for example, “gets you” roughly $5,000 to $10,000.
The concept of punitive or exemplary damages is entirely unknown in Germany. Class actions, which U.S. lawyers take for granted to be available in cases like the German diesel scandal, are also not available under the German civil procedure rules. And don’t let anyone tell you something else: The new German litigation tool “Musterfeststellungsklage“, which was introduced in 2018 and which is sometimes — misleadingly — referred to as “German class action” (Sammelklage), is something entirely different and must not be confused with a U.S. style class action. The German Musterfeststellungsklage is only available in very limited circumstances and the plaintiff can only be a consumer protection organisation (Verbraucherschutzorganisation). And even if the consumer protection organisation is successful with the Musterfeststellungsklage, each individual claimant must still go to court to have the concrete damages of their individual cases assessed by the local court. The Musterfeststellungsklage ist only the first step, the actual value of the claim is determined in a second, ancillary law suit. All this makes the German “class action” a rather frustrating instrument.
Back to normal tort cases in German civil courts: We have explained some specific aspects of German personal injury and tort claims on our civil law blog Cross Channel Lawyers (enter “tort”). This current post now demonstrates the general legal test (Prüfungsschema) which a German litigation lawyer or a German judge uses to assess the merits of a tort case.
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Translation costs in international litigation can exceed court and lawyer fees
In a legal dispute between an American or British business on the one side and a German business on the other side, the first things lawyers usually look at are jurisdiction, venue and applicable law. The party that finds itself having a “home game”, i.e. the party litigating at their local court, usually feels they have a strategic advantage. And indeed, if a lawsuit takes place in one’s own country and the applicable law is the law one’s own employees, inhouse counsels and go-to litigation lawyers already on retainer are familiar with, this makes matters easier.
However, there is one aspect which is often overlooked when international contracts are drafted. That’s the issue of procedural language, i.e. the simple question: What is the language of the civil court the parties have chosen? This post explains why the procedural language of the competent court is just as important as applicable law and jurisdiction itself.
Court language can be a huge cost factor
Let’s assume I represent a German company which manufactures high tech equipment and exports the same to the USA through a distributor in California. When the contract was negotiated a few years ago, my German client managed to get the US distributor to accept the jurisdiction of German state courts and German law to apply in case of a legal dispute between the parties. Sounds great, right? So, where is the problem for the German plaintiff?
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Threatening someone to press criminal charges in Germany: Smart strategy or criminal offense?
Does German law permit claimants (or their lawyers) to threaten a debtor with pressing criminal charges against the debtor in case he or she refuses to pay a civil claim? Will a German lawyer have to face disciplinary sanctions when putting undue pressure on the opponent or their legal counsel?
All of this depends entirely on the circumstances of the case and the nature of the threat which is being used. This post explains if and to what extent the parties to a civil dispute in Germany are permitted to threaten each other with initiating criminal prosecution (Strafverfolgung) if the other side does not acknowledge the civil claim in dispute.
Legitimate use of pressure or criminal behaviour?
If you have a civil claim against someone, let’s say a contractual payment claim against a trustee, and you are convinced that your claim can also be based on tort, e.g. embezzlement or fraud, then it is perfectly legitimate under German law to threaten the debtor with a statement like:
“Unless you make full payment until the end of the week, I will not only sue you in civil court but will also press criminal charges against you for embezzlement.”
Under German law, in the above circumstances, a threat to press criminal charges constitutes neither coercion (Nötigung, see section 240 German Criminal Code) nor extortion / blackmailing (Erpressung, section 253 German Criminal Code) because there is a direct link between the actual claim and the criminal charges. The German criminal courts call this requirement of a direct connection “innerer Zusammenhang”.
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German Civil Court Case Files are not Public Records
U.S. lawyers do naturally assume that court files are public records and can be easily accessed and inspected by the public. Not so in Germany! As with, for instance, land registry information (see here), Germany is rather secretive when it comes to legal documents. Under German law, there is no general right to access court records in order to inspect and to copy the same. Instead, the written elements of a German civil lawsuit (lawyer’s statements, witness statements, expert opinions etc.) are considered to be a private and confidential matter, what is called “vertraulich” in German.
Are German court hearings open to the public?
Pursuant to section 169 German Courts Constitution Act, the court hearings themselves are in principle open to the public, except for family law cases, non-contentious probate proceedings and other sensitive matters. Audio and television recordings or transmissions during court hearings are, however, strictly prohibited in Germany. When you see TV coverage relating to a German trial (be it a civil trial or a criminal court), the footage you may see on TV is made before the judge opens the proceedings. Once the German court is in session, no recordings must be made and no pictures must be taken.
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How to obtain a German judgment many months earlier than by way of a “standard” lawsuit
In certain situations, the German Code of Civil Procedure (Zivilprozessordnung) allows the plaintiff to file a fast track civil lawsuit, the so called “Urkunden-, Wechsel- und Scheckprozess”. The standard expression used by German lawyers is “Urkundsprozess”, which translates into “deed claim proceedings”.
These special “deed claim proceedings” (besondere Verfahrensarten) in a German civil court must not be confused with temporary restraining orders or preliminary injunctions (einstweilige Verfügungen, einstweilige Anordnungen), which are also available in Germany but have very different requirements, inter alia urgency (Dringlichkeit).
What is an Urkundsprozess?
In order to file a German “deed claim proceeding”, the plaintiff must not demonstrate any urgency at all. Instead, the deed claim lawsuit route is available to any plaintiff who is able to substantiate his or her claim by providing to the court specific documents, inter alia deeds (Urkunden), checks (Schecks), promise to pay notes (Schuldscheine), acceptance bills etc.
These special Urkundsprozess proceedings are regulated by s. 592 et seqq. German Civil Procedure Rules. In order to be able to opt for this procedural route, the plaintiff must be able to prove the claim entirely bydocumentary evidence (Urkundenbweis). In other words: The Plaintiff must produce one or more documents, in the original, which fully prove the claim. There must be no need for additional evidence. If, for instance, the plaintiff needs to call a witness for certain facts in order to prove the claim, then the fast track proceedings are not available and the plaintiff must file a “normal” civil procedure case.
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Lawyer being a necessary witness is not grounds for disqualification under German CPR
Can a trial lawyer in a civil lawsuit act as a witness for his or her own client? At first glance, the whole idea of lawyer testimony in his or her own lawsuit goes against the grain of what seems the right allocation of roles and responsibilities in a civil lawsuit.
However, what if the party’s lawyer is the only person who can give testimony about a specific fact. Must the client then drop that trial lawyer in order to be able to call him or her as a witness? This post explains the differences in civil procedure rules of Germany, the USA and other common law jurisdictions with regard to the issue of advocates acting as witnesses in the same trial.
What is the situation for U.S. trial lawyers?
The American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rule 3.7 prohibits a U.S. lawyer to act as advocate at a trial in which that same lawyer is likely to be a necessary witness. There are some exceptions to that rule, but the principle stands. Most states in the USA have adopted identical or similar rules for trial lawyers. The idea behind this rule is that the jury shall not be confused or prejudiced by a lawyer being also called as witnesses during trial. As a rule, the roles of acting as an advocate for one party and at the same time being a witness shall not be combined.
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