Federal Court of Justice
The Federal Court of Justice (German: Bundesgerichtshof, BGH) in Karlsruhe is the highest court in the system of ordinary jurisdiction (ordentliche Gerichtsbarkeit) in Germany. It is the supreme court (court of last resort) in all matters of criminal and private law. A decision handed down by the BGH can be reversed only by the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany in the rare cases that the Constitutional Court rules on constitutionality (compatibility with the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany).
Before the Federal Court of Justice of Germany was created in its present form, Germany had several highest courts. As early as 1495 there was the so-called Reichskammergericht, which existed until 1806. As from 1870, in the time of the North German Confederation, there was the Bundesoberhandelsgericht in Leipzig. Later, in 1871, it was renamed to Reichsoberhandelsgericht and its area of responsibility was amplified as well. This court was unsoldered by the Reichsgericht at October 1, 1879, which was also in Leipzig. On 1 October 1950, five years after the German Reich had collapsed, the Bundesgerichtshof —as it exists nowadays— was founded.
Together with the Federal Administrative Court of Germany, the Federal Finance Court of Germany, the Federal Labor Court of Germany and the Federal Social Court of Germany, the Federal Court of Justice is one of the highest courts of Germany today, located in Karlsruhe and Leipzig.
Organisation and functions
The Federal Court of Justice consists of 13 panels responsible for civil matters (Zivilsenate) and six panels responsible for criminal matters (Strafsenate). In addition, there are eight so-called special panels (Spezialsenate), which have specific responsibilities and are made up of judges from the civil and criminal panels; some of those panels also include appointed volunteers. The lion's share of the work is, however, done within the civil and criminal panels: Of the approximately 9,200 new matters brought before the Court in 2019, about 9,000 fell within the scope of responsibility of a criminal or civil panel. To resolve disagreements among the various civil and criminal panels, the Federal Court of Justice also has two Grand Panels (Große Senate).
The civil and criminal panels consist of approximately eight judges each. Judges can serve on more than one panel, in which case their working time is split. Cases are never decided by all the members of a panel but, in general, by a group of five judges (Spruchgruppe).
As in all German courts, an annually revised schedule of responsibilities (Geschäftsverteilungsplan) specifies in detail the allocation of cases to panels, and each panel's internal schedule of responsibilities determines the allocation of cases to a five-judge group. The allocation of cases to panels is different in civil matters than in criminal matters: Each of the civil panels has specific subject matter responsibilities. For instance, legal disputes concerning copyright law are handled by the First Civil Panel, while disputes concerning inheritance law are handled by the Fourth. In practice, these responsibilities are rarely changed, which leads to a high degree of specialisation of the individual panels. Criminal cases, on the other hand, are assigned to a criminal panel based primarily on the origin of the case, with each panel handling the appeals from a certain subset of court districts. For instance, appeals from courts in Berlin are always decided by the Fifth Criminal Panel. A few exceptions to this location-based assignment exist; for example, one of the criminal panels has a special responsibility for road traffic-related criminal matters and another one has exclusive responsibility for national security matters.
Role of the Federal Court of Justice in civil matters
The civil panels of the Federal Court of Justice primarily deal with appeals on points of law (Revision) and complaints against denial of leave to appeal on points of law (Nichtzulassungsbeschwerde). In a typical civil case, the losing party can appeal to a court of second instance—provided that the subject matter of the appeal is greater than 600 euros or the court of first instance expressly allowed the appeal. Such an appeal (Berufung) can be both on points of fact and on points of law, and it prompts the appellate court to re-hear the entire matter (that is, it (re-)hears witnesses, including potential new witnesses, and re-tries material issues of fact). In the following situations the decision by the appellate court can be appealed to the Federal Court of Justice on points of law:
- The appellate court has granted leave to appeal on a point of law. It is legally required to do so if (a) the legal matter is of fundamental significance or if (b) the further development of the law or the interests in ensuring uniform adjudication require a decision to be handed down by the Federal Court of Justice. The Federal Court of Justice is bound by this determination of the lower court; if the losing party chooses to appeal, the Federal Court of Justice must decide on it.
- The appellate court has not granted leave to appeal on a point of law even though it had a legal duty to do so and the subject matter of the appeal is greater than 40,000 euros.
- The appellate court has entered a judgement rejecting the appeal as inadmissible.
In cases (2) and (3), the injured party can file a Nichtzulassungsbeschwerde with the Federal Court of Justice. If the Federal Court of Justice agrees that leave to appeal on a point of law was wrongly denied, it grants leave on its own and subsequently rules on the appeal.
All panels of the court are at liberty to deviate from their own prior jurisprudence at any time. However, when a panel wishes to deviate from the jurisprudence of one or more other panels, it must submit a request to those panels (Divergenzvorlage), asking them whether they stand by their prior decision(s). If any of the panels do, and if the requesting panel still intends to deviate, it must refer the issue to a Grand Panel. In cases of disagreement between civil panels, the ultimate arbiter is the Grand Panel for Civil Matters (Großer Senat für Zivilsachen), a special panel of the court composed of the presiding judges of each of the 13 civil panels and the President of the Court; in cases of disagreement between criminal panels, the issue is referred to the Grand Panel for Criminal Matters (Großer Senat für Strafsachen), which is made up of two representatives from each of the six panels and the President of the Court. In practice, such referrals are rare; in 2018, for instance, not a single question was put before the Grand Panel for Criminal Matters (2017: 4). Even rarer are cases where there is a difference of opinion between a criminal and a civil panel. In such a case, the dispute must be resolved by the Joint Grand Panels (Vereinigte Große Senate), which consists of all the members of the Civil and the Criminal Grand Panel.
If any panel of the Federal Court of Justice intends to deviate from a decision by one or more panels of any other German supreme court (i.e. the Federal Administrative Court, the Federal Finance Court, the Federal Labour Court, or the Federal Social Court), it must refer the issue to the Joint Panel (Gemeinsamer Senat). The Joint Panel is composed of the presidents of all supreme courts (permanent members) and two judges from each of the panels involved in the disagreement (ad-hoc members).
Some specific cases are handled by special panels. The following is a list of special panels at the Federal Court of Justice; the composition of a deciding Spruchkörper is given in parentheses:
- a panel for agricultural matters (Landwirtschaftssenat) (three judges + two appointed volunteers who work or have worked in farming);
- a panel for professional and disciplinary matters concerning lawyers (Senat für Anwaltssachen) (three judges including the President of the Federal Court of Justice + two appointed volunteers who are lawyers);
- a panel for professional and disciplinary matters concerning notaries public (Senat für Notarsachen) (three judges + two appointed volunteers who are notaries public);
- a panel for professional and disciplinary matters concerning patent attorneys (Senat für Patentanwaltssachen) (three judges + two appointed volunteers who are patent attorneys);
- a panel for professional and disciplinary matters concerning tax consultants and tax agents (Senat für Steuerberater- und Steuerbevollmächtigtensachen) (three judges + two appointed volunteers who are tax consultants or tax agents);
- a panel for professional and disciplinary matters concerning auditors (Senat für Wirtschaftsprüfersachen) (three judges + two appointed volunteers who are auditors);
- the Cartel Panel (Kartellsenat) (five judges);
- the Federal Disciplinary Tribunal (Dienstgericht des Bundes) (three judges of the Federal Court of Justice + two judges from the judicial branch of which the affected judge is a member).
All of the judges on the special panels are regular members of a civil and/or criminal panel.
Judges of the Federal Court of Justice are selected by an electoral committee, which consists of the Secretaries of Justice of the 16 German Bundesländer and of 16 representatives appointed by the German Federal Parliament (Bundestag). Once a judge has been chosen by this committee, he or she is appointed by the President of Germany. Individuals who do not meet the personal requirements for lifetime judicial appointments are not eligible; in particular, individuals must be German citizens and must have the necessary educational background. To be appointed as a judge at the Federal Court of Justice, an individual must, in addition, be 35 years of age or older. Once appointed, the presidium of Federal Court of Justice assigns the new judge to one or more panels.
|Name||Took office||Left office|
|1||Hermann Weinkauff (1894–1981)||1 October 1950||31 March 1960|
|2||Bruno Heusinger (1900–1987)||1 April 1960||31 March 1968|
|3||Robert Fischer (1911–1983)||1. April 1968||30. September 1977|
|4||Gerd Pfeiffer (1919–2007)||1 October 1977||31 December 1987|
|5||Walter Odersky (b. 1931)||1 January 1988||31 July 1996|
|6||Karlmann Geiß (b. 1935)||1 August 1996||31 May 2000|
|7||Günter Hirsch (b. 1943)||15 July 2000||31 January 2008|
|8||Klaus Tolksdorf (b. 1948)||1 February 2008||31 January 2014|
|9||Bettina Limperg (b. 1960)||1 July 2014|
- Horst Hagen
- Fritz Hauß
- Burkhard Jähnke
- Gerda Müller (jurist)
- Joachim Wenzel
- Alfred Bergmann
- Friedrich Blumenröhr
- Katharina Deppert
- Wolf-Dieter Dressler
- Willi Erdmann
- Wulf Goette
- Werner Groß
- Max Güde
- Monika Harms
- Gerhart Kreft
- Klaus Kutzer
- Heinrich Wilhelm Laufhütte
- Lutz Meyer-Goßner
- Armin Nack
- Gerd Nobbe
- Eberhard Rinne
- Ruth Rissing-van Saan
- Rüdiger Rogge
- Gerhard Schäfer
- Herbert Schimansky
- Wolfgang Schlick
- Karl-Bernhard Schmitz
- Ingeborg Tepperwien
- Wilfried Terno
- Ekkehard Appl
- Gerhard Athing
- Clemens Basdorf
- Jörg-Peter Becker
- Rolf Bischoff
- Peter Blauth
- Bernhard Bode
- Axel Boetticher
- Hans-Peter Brause
- Siegfried Broß
- Hans-Joachim Brüning
- Wolfgang Büsche
- Erhard Bungeroth
- Gabriele Calliebe
- Ursula Safari Chabestari
- Jürgen Cierniak
- Hans-Joachim Czub
- Klaus Detter
- Hans-Joachim Dose
- Renate Elf
- Andreas Ernemann
- Hans Joachim Faller
- Detlev Fischer
- Thomas Fischer
- Ulrich Franke
- Reinhard Gaier
- Gregor Galke
- Markus Gehrlein
- Alfons van Gelder
- Wolfgang Gerber
- Christoph Karczewski
- Ursula Gerhardt
- Jürgen von Gerlach
- Jürgen-Peter Graf
- Karl Haager
- Joachim Häger
- Ulrich Hebenstreit
- Hartwig Henze
- Monika Hermanns
- Ulrich Herrmann
- Dieter Hesselberger
- Erwin Hubert
- Gerbert Hübsch
- Bernhard Jestaedt
- Hans-Ulrich Joeres
- Hans-Peter Kirchhof
- Harald Kolz
- Christine Krohn
- Jürgen-Detlef Kuckein
- Heidi Lambert-Lang
- Reiner Lemke
- Manfred Lepa
- Gerhard von Lienen
- Kurt Rüdiger Maatz
- Heinrich Maul
- Hans-Kurt Mees
- Elisabeth Mühlens
- Maren Münke
- Wolfgang Neskovic
- Wolfgang Pfister
- Friedrich Quack
- Rolf Raum
- Angelika Reichart
- Dietrich Reinicke
- Karin-Huberta Ritter
- Ellen Roggenbuck
- Hans-Jürgen Schaal
- Wilhelm Schluckebier
- Johanna Schmidt-Räntsch
- Bertram Schmitt
- Ernst Schneider
- Otto Seidl
- Helmut Simon (judge)
- Joachim Siol
- Daniela Solin-Stojanovic
- Beate Sost-Scheible
- Joachim Starck
- Heinz Dieter Stodolkowitz
- Christina Stresemann
- Lutz Strohn
- Rheinhold Thode
- Ernst Träger
- Karl-Friedrich Tropf
- Gerhard Ulsamer
- Gerhard Vill
- Max Vogt
- Thomas Wagenitz
- Bernhard Wahl
- Roland Wendt
- Manfred Werp
- Klaus Winter
- Karl-Hermann Zoll
- Jannpeter Zopfs
- Horst Josef Zugehör
- Lothar Zysk
Attorneys admitted at the Federal Court of Justice
In all civil cases heard by the Federal Court of Justice, the parties need to be represented by an attorney who has been specifically admitted to the bar at the Federal Court of Justice (Rechtsanwalt beim Bundesgerichtshof). This admission is the only 'special' admission within the German court system; ordinarily, an attorney admitted to the bar is permitted to practice before any court. Conversely, an attorney at the Federal Court of Justice is only allowed to practice before the Federal Court of Justice, other federal courts of last instance, the Joint Senate of the Supreme Courts of the Federation and the Federal Constitutional Court.
Admission to the bar at the Federal Court of Justice is highly selective; as of July 2020, only 40 attorneys are so admitted. Candidates for admission are nominated by an electoral committee and are then chosen and appointed by the Federal Ministry of Justice.
The requirement for a representative specifically admitted to the Federal Court of Justice does not apply in criminal cases. Here, representation by any lawyer admitted to the bar in Germany suffices.
- http://www.bundesgerichtshof.de/docs/broschuerebgh_2007.pdf%5B%5D - page 4 (German)
- http://www.bundesgerichtshof.de/docs/broschuerebgh_2007.pdf%5B%5D - page 5 (German)
- http://www.bundesgerichtshof.de/docs/broschuerebgh_2007.pdf%5B%5D - page 6 (German)
- http://www.bundesgerichtshof.de/EN/TheCourt/TaskOrganisation/PositionFCoJ/positionFCoJ_node.html Archived 2014-08-22 at the Wayback Machine (German)
- Bettina Malzahn and Rudolf Mellinghoff, "Bundesgerichte", in Görres-Gesellschaft, Staatslexikon, vol 1 (8th edn, Herder 2017). The Grand Panels are not included in that number.
- "Übersicht über den Geschäftsgang bei den Zivilsenaten des Bundesgerichtshofs im Jahr 2019" (PDF) (in German). Bundesgerichtshof. p. 4. Retrieved 2020-09-28.
- "Übersicht über den Geschäftsgang bei den Strafsenaten des Bundesgerichtshofs im Jahr 2019" (PDF) (in German). Bundesgerichtshof. p. 3. Retrieved 2020-09-28.
- Section 139(1) GVG.
- Monika Jachmann-Michel in Maunz/Dürig: Grundgesetz-Kommentar, art 101 paras 50ff (R 84 August 2018).
- Section 21g GVG.
- "Zuständigkeit der Strafsenate und der Ermittlungsrichter" (in German). Bundesgerichtshof. Retrieved 2020-09-28.
- Sections 512(1), 512(2) ZPO.
- Gerhard Robbers, An Introduction to German Law (7th edn, Nomos 2019) 25.
- Sections 543(1), 544(2) ZPO.
- Section 543(2) 1st sentence ZPO.
- Section 543(2) 2nd sentence ZPO. On the special case of an "objectively arbitrary" grant of leave, see Wolfgang Krüger in Thomas Rauscher and Wolfgang Krüger (eds), Münchener Kommentar zur ZPO, vol 2 (6th edn, Beck 2020), s 543 para 52.
- Burkhard Feilcke in Rolf Hannich (ed), Karlsruher Kommentar zur Strafprozessordnung (8th edn, Beck 2019), § 132 GVG para 5.
- Sections 132(2), 132(3) 1st sentence GVG.
- Sections 132(2), 132(5) 1st sentence GVG.
- "Übersicht über den Geschäftsgang bei den Strafsenaten des Bundesgerichtshofs im Jahr 2018" (PDF) (in German). Bundesgerichtshof. p. 18. Retrieved 2020-09-28.
- "Übersicht über den Geschäftsgang bei den Strafsenaten des Bundesgerichtshofs im Jahr 2017" (PDF) (in German). Bundesgerichtshof. p. 18. Retrieved 2020-09-28.
- Sections 132(2), 132(5) 3rd sentence GVG.
- Article 95(3) 1st sentence GG; s 2(1) RsprEinhG [Law to ensure the uniformity of the jurisprudence of the highest federal courts].
- Section 3(1) RsprEinhG; Andreas Voßkuhle in Friedrich Klein and Christian Starck (eds), von Mangoldt/Klein/Starck: Grundgesetz (7th edn, Beck 2018) vol 3, art 95 para 43.
- Sections 2(1) 3rd sentence, 2(2), 4(3)(1), 4(6) LwVG [Landwirtschaftsverfahrensgesetz].
- Sections 112a(2), 112a(3), 106(1) 1st sentence, 106(2) 1st sentence BRAO [ Federal Lawyers' Act].
- Sections 99, 106 Bundesnotarordnung [Federal Code for Notaries].
- Section 90(1), 90(2) 2nd sentence PAO [Ordinance Concerning Patent Attorneys].
- Sections 97(1), 97(2) Steuerberatungsgesetz [Tax Advisory Act].
- Section 74 Wirtschaftsprüferordnung [Public Accountants Act].
- Section 94(1) GWB [Act against Restraints of Competition].
- Sections 79(2), 79(3), 61(1), 61(2) 1st and 2nd sentence DRiG.
- Article 95(2) GG [Basic Law]; ss 1(1), 2, 3(1), 4(1), 5(1) RiWG [Act on Electing Judges]; Helmuth Schulze-Fielitz in Horst Dreier (ed), Grundgesetz-Kommentar, vol 3 (3rd edn, Mohr Siebeck 2018), art 95 paras 26f.
- Section 125(1) GVG [Courts Constitution Act]; s 1(1) RiWG; Helmuth Schulze-Fielitz in Horst Dreier (ed), Grundgesetz-Kommentar, vol 3 (3rd edn, Mohr Siebeck 2018), art 95 para 32.
- Sections 9, 5ff DRiG [German Judiciary Act].
- Section 125(2) GVG.
- Cf s 21e(1) 1st sentence GVG.
- Sections 48(1) 1st sentence, 48(2) DRiG; Klaus Weber, "Altersgrenzen" in Creifelds Rechtswörterbuch (24th edn, Beck 2020).
- Sections 48(1) 2nd sentence, 48(3) DRiG; Klaus Weber, "Altersgrenzen" in Creifelds Rechtswörterbuch (24th edn, Beck 2020).
- http://www.bundesgerichtshof.de/EN/TheCourt/Presidents/presidents_node.html Archived 2014-08-22 at the Wayback Machine Presidents of the Federal Court
- Sections 78(1) 3rd sentence ZPO [Code of Civil Procedure]; 114(2) FamFG [Act on Proceedings in Family Matters and in Matters of Non-contentious Jurisdiction].
- Jens Adolphsen, Zivilprozessrecht (6th edn, Beck 2020), s 5 para 14.
- Section 172(1) 1st sentence BRAO [Federal Lawyers' Act]; Jens Adolphsen, Zivilprozessrecht (6th edn, Beck 2020), s 5 para 14.
- "Verzeichnis der BGH-Anwälte". Rechtsanwaltskammer beim BGH. Retrieved 2020-07-23. (German)
- Sections 164, 170(1) 1st sentence BRAO; Volker Römermann and Wolfgang Hartung, Anwaltliches Berufsrecht (3rd edn, Beck 2018), s 7 para 5.
- Volker Römermann, "Freigabe der Zulassung als BGH-Anwalt?"  ZRP 207.
- Brockhaus in drei Bänden (in German). 2006. p. 839. ISBN 978-3-7653-1514-5.
- Meyers Großes Taschenlexikon in 24 Bänden (in German). 2006. p. 1038. ISBN 978-3-411-10063-7.
- "The Federal Court of Justice" (PDF). Karlsruhe, Leipzig: Federal Court of Justice of Germany. 2014.