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The legal and judicial system in Germany differs somewhat from those in the United States, Canada, Great Britain or other Commonwealth countries. Germany´s legal system is - generally spoken - divided into civil law, administrative law and criminal law.

Civil law litigation is initiated in first instance courts - either the Amtsgericht (district court) or the Landgericht (regional court), the next step is either the Landgericht or the Oberlandesgericht/in Berlin: Kammergericht (higher regional court). In disputes where the amount at stake is less than 10,000 (in the Amtsgericht) you do not necessarily need a lawyer to run the case. In any case before the Landgericht (disputes more than 10,000) one must be represented by a lawyer admitted in Germany. Appeals can be forwarded to the Oberlandesgericht if the amount in dispute exceeds 1,500. If the amount in dispute is over DM65,000, an application for revision can be made to the Bundesgerichtshof.

There are specific civil courts dealing with family law (Familiengerichte) and labour law (Arbeitsgerichte). In such cases the Oberlandesgerichte and Landesarbeitsgerichte act as courts of appeal. In divorce cases at least one party does need to be represented by a lawyer, though couples can agree on details concerning their divorce before involving the courts.

Mahnverfahren (debt recovery actions) are always initiated at the Amtsgericht. Forms for lodging debt recovery applications can be obtained from stationery supply stores.

Administrative law includes tax law, social law, construction law etc. and there are special procedures of objection to administrative directions.

When choosing legal counsel, keep these things in mind:
  • Contact several attorneys, check their qualifications and experience, and describe the nature of the case before arranging a meeting or making a final decision.
  • Meet your choosen attorney to verify your decision, but discuss the payment for this first meeting before you decide to talk to another lawyer.
  • Don´t hand over documents, funds etc. until you are certain that he/she understands you and the case and is willing and able to offer you the best possible representation.
  • Ask specific questions about how the attorney plans to represent you and make sure that every step is explained to you in terms that you can understand.
  • Make sure the attorney keeps you informed of each step´s outcome and promptly forwards copies of relevant correspondance to you. In turn, you should be as honest, accurate, up-to-date and cooperative as possible to enable the attorney to optimally represent you.
  • Ask for a written schedule of fees in advance. Lawyers fees are strictly regulated according to German law (Bundesrechtsanwaltsgebührenordnung), but for advice work a flat fee or hourly rate can be charged. Contigency fees or profit-sharing based on the case´s outcome is prohibited in Germany. In any judicial procedure the German lawyers have to bill at least the fees fixed by law.
  • Once the attorney has started working on your case, he/she will expect part of the fee in advance and payment after each action taken on your behalf, and he/she may refuse further action until payment is received.
Should you have financial difficulties, free legal assistance is possible in certain cases. Consult the Directory of Legal Aid and Advice Facilities Available Throughout the World, available from the Amerika Haus Library or via The Legal Association, c/o The International Bar Association, 501 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10017.

If you intend becoming a permanent resident, you might want to consider taking out some legal protection insurance covering most legal expenses up to a certain amount. Most major insurance companies offer this protection.

Most German lawyers speak at least passable English, many having studied in the USA or the UK. Those appearing here are Berlin lawyers who deal regularly with English speaking clients. Where specific practicioners in a firm specialize in dealing with English speakers, those persons' names appear at the end of the entry for the firm under the heading "Contact" .

Dr Astrid Auer
Specialist in Commercial & Civil Law
Martin & Martin
Katharinenstr. 8
10711 Berlin - Wilmersdorf
Tel: 8969 0612, Fax: 8969 0620

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