May a Witness in German Civil Litigation refuse to give Testimony?

Under German Rules of Civil Procedure, any natural person, including minors, can be named as a witness (Zeuge) by a party to a civil procedure. The civil court then decides on whether and to what extent these witnesses (as designated by the parties in their briefs to the court) need to be heard, i.e. whether — in the view of the court — the specific issue which the witness shall give testimony on, is:

(i) relevant for the court’s decision; and

(ii) still in dispute between Plaintiff and Defendant after the exchange of briefs.

If the answer to both requirements is yes, the respective witnesses will consequently be summoned (geladen) by the German civil court. In practice, each witness will be sent a letter by the civil court (Zeugenladung) which demands the witness to attend an oral hearing in order to be questioned as a relevant witness on one or several specific issue(s), the so called “topics for questioning” (Beweisthema), see s. 377 German Civil Procedure Code. Thus, the witness is informed a few weeks prior to the actual oral hearing date what the court will ask him to testify on. The witness summons only describes this topic in rather broad terms. Normally, the witness summons letter does not contain any specific questions (this is different when it comes to expert witnesses). A typical example of the content of such a German civil court summons letter to a witness of fact would be:

“In the civil lawsuit between A and B regarding a car accident on Z-street on the … around … o’clock you have been named as a witness. You shall give testimony about the details how the accident occurred.”

In some cases, the court may permit the witness to testify in writing, i.e. by answering the questions by sending in a letter. This is, however, the exception to the rule.

Duties of a Witness under German Civil Procedure Law

The standard procedure is that the witness must attend the court hearing in person. Every person summoned by a German civil court has the duty to appear in court, to testify truthfully (s. 390 et seqq. German Civil Procedure Rules) and to swear an oath if this is demanded by the court (which it very rarely is, as I have explained here).

This general obligation of a German witness to give testimony in a civil lawsuit exists, however, exclusively vis-a-vis the court itself. There are no pre-trial depositions in Germany. Instead, the witness is questioned only in court and primarily by the judge.

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German Civil Court Judges rarely put a Witness under Oath

Section 154 German Penal Code (Strafgesetzbuch) is titled “Meineid”, which is the German word for perjury, i.e. lying under oath to certain German authorities, either in a German court of law (Gericht) or in another official proceeding.

However, in real life, prosecution for perjury is very rare in Germany. This is not because all Germans are perfectly honest and no one lies in German court rooms (trust me, there is plenty of lying), but because not many German judges demand a witness to swear an oath. Not even when the judge is rather sure that he or she was just lied to by the witness.

Why does German law (appear to) employ such a soft approach towards “lying witnesses” in civil procedure? This post describes the method of hearing witnesses in a German civil lawsuit and explains why many civil law court judges in Germany are hesitant to put a witness under oath.

Witness Evidence in German Civil Litigation

First, you must remember that there is no jury in a German court of law (more here). The case is decided by a professional judge only. The German approach is that a witness shall be questioned by the judge (instead of by the parties) and shall tell “the story as the witness remembers it”. The witness shall coherently describe what he or she recalls, i.e. in a freely worded statement which is uninterrupted by constant questions by a party’s legal counsel. “Coherently” (“im Zusammenhang”) is the important buzzword here, see section 396 para. 1 German Code of Civil Procedure. This German civil procedure statute explicitly prohibits a rapid fire cross-examination style questioning of a witness.

The method of hearing witnesses in German civil litigation is therefore the exact opposite of the rather aggressive “question by question” approach used in the United States. German civil procedure rules do not believe in pressuring or leading witnesses. Instead, the German judge asks the questions rather broadly and then lets the witness speak. A typical question by a German civil court judge would be:

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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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You want your day in German Court? Don’t get your hopes up too high!

How important is the oral hearing stage in German civil litigation?

When you read the relevant sections of the German Code of Civil Procedure (Zivilprozessordnung) one gets the impression that in a German civil case the parties will extensively lay out and discuss the case in front of the judge. Section 128 ZPO, which is headed “Principle of oral argument” states:

(1) The parties shall submit their arguments regarding the legal dispute to the court of decision orally.

More specifically, section 137 German Civil Procedure Code sets out the following :

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German Court Records: The Judge decides what goes on Record

How do you order a full transcript of a German court hearing? Well, that is a trick question in two respects.  First, because German civil court records are not public. Second, because there are no such full transcripts of court hearings. In German civil cases, no verbatim records of hearings, witness statements or other judicial proceedings are being made. Thus, you will not find a U.S.-style court reporter or stenographer in a German civil courtroom.

What court hearing minutes are there?

German Civil Procedure Rules (Zivilprozessordnung) cover the issue of how official court hearing minutes shall be taken in sections 159 to 165. According to section 160a ZPO:

The content of the record of the hearing may be noted in a usual form of shorthand, by using comprehensible abbreviations, or by recording oral statements on a sound or data carrier.

This shows that, instead of a court stenographer taking a verbatim record, the judge dictates a summary of what the parties or the witnesses have stated to a court secretary (Justizsekretär or Justizfachangestellte). Sometimes, especially in lower courts,  there is not even a court secretary, just the judge and his/her voice recorder.

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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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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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Short guide to contentious probate procedure under German law

German succession laws as well as probate procedure are very different from those of Common Law jurisdictions. This is mainly due to the fact that German inheritance law does not know a personal representative. Instead, all rights and obligations of the decedent are automatically transferred onto the heir (successor) or the community of heirs, if more than one. My separate blog Cross Channel Lawyers explains the details of German inheritance law, German non-contentious probate, contentious probate (i.e. the rules on how to challenge a will), as well as German gift tax law in dozens of posts (see here).

Non-contentious German Probate (Erbscheinverfahren)

If no one does challenge a will, the standard approach to obtaining German probate is the non-contentious probate procedure, the so called Erbscheinsverfahren (section 2353 German Civil Code). This non-contentious probate (more) takes place at the German Amtsgericht (Circuit Court) in the city or district where the decedent had his or her last place of residence. The rules of procedure for this standard, i.e. non-contentious probate, are those of the FamFG, which is short for “Gesetz über das Verfahren in Familiensachen und in den Angelegenheiten der freiwilligen Gerichtsbarkeit”, i.e. the German Act on Proceedings in Family Matters and in Matters of non-contentious Jurisdiction. More on the various German procedure rules in the post: German Statutes relating to Civil Litigation

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What are the Rules of Evidence in Germany?

In a German civil lawsuit, a relevant fact must be proven by the claimant, or more precisely by the party bearing the burden of proof, if the defendant disputes the alleged fact to be true. For details on who bears the burden of proof and what needs to be done to convince the court see the post: Standard of Proof in German Civil Litigation.

Types of Evidence admissible in German Civil Courts

In sections 355 to 370, the German Code of Civil Procedure (Zivilprozessordnung, ZPO) lays out some general rules on how a German civil court takes evidence. The court (be it a single judge or a judiciary panel (see here: GERMAN COURT SYSTEM) determines:

  1. which alleged facts are still remaining in dispute after the parties have exchanged their briefs (“verbleibende streitige Tatsachen”, also called “Streitstand”);
  2. who must produce the evidence on these disputed facts; and 
  3. how much time is this party granted to submit sufficient evidence. 

With regard to all this, the German civil court issues a so called Beweisbeschluss, i.e. a court order on the concrete evidence to be taken, section 358 German Code on Civil Procedure. The content of this Beweisbeschluss can, for instance, be an order to hear a witness or the decision by the court to instruct an independent expert (Sachverständiger) to provide the court with an expert opinion (Sachverständigengutachten).

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