How to Work with German Law

Law is normally considered as a book with seven seals. By reading the codes of German law, you will (theoretically) have a basic understanding of your situation. German codes are very structured and these structures are interdependent. In German law, the first thing you will notice is that the wording is highly abstract. Ordinarily, there is a general part consisting of definitions and general provisions in every code. These are followed by the special provisions.

For matters of interpretation, it is necessary to know that if you are required to do 1, 2, 3, and 4 then you must meet all four conditions. If the statute talks of 1, 2, or 3, then you must meet at least one of the named conditions. In case the statute says you are to meet 1 or 2 and 3, then it will be sufficient just to meet 1 and 3, or to meet 2 and 3 – whichever applies.

Statutes in all countries are quoted differently. So, how am I to quote a German statute? “Art.” is short for Artikel, “§” means Paragraph (in English legalese “section”), “[Roman numerals] or Abs. / Absatz” refer to the paragraph of the section (in English legalese “paragraph”), “[Arabic numerals]” refer to the clause of the quoted paragraph, and “[some kind of abbreviation]” names the statute. “§” will be used if one section is referred to and “§§” if two or more sections are referred to inside the same statute. These abbreviations are spelled out and, translated and if necessary, quickly explained in the mouse's shadow. The Federal Ministry of Justice has recently started launching a translation of the Civil Code, Introductionary Act to the Civil Code, and Penal Code. This service is being integrated into the portal. More and more, you will be finding citations of the German Statutes available in English.

Notice also that German attorneys and judges usually do not think in precedents, but more in terms of a certain section of a statute and then in standing judgments of

  1. the federal courts (BGH, BFH, BVerwG, and BVerfG)
  2. the higher regional courts (OLG, OVG),
  3. regional courts (LG),
  4. the county courts (AG), and
  5. if all these fail, then the deciding judge is left to the legal academic literature or decide upon his interpretation of the law.
To find out what German “law” is, a German lawyer will always want to have a statute, and, supplementing it: implementing ordinances and other statutory instruments. And after having considered those texts, he will be interested in case law. In some areas, the text of the statute has become of hardly any value and case law determines. Such is typical for labor, unfair competition law. Whenever legal interpretations require special or extraordinary measures, attorneys and judges will rely on previous court rulings.

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