Deutsche Sprache schwere Sprache: new initiative for English-speaking courts in Germany

In 2010, in a post on the first German court hearing in English, I summarized what I could find out about the success of the initiative. The planned statutory change did not come about, presumably because the legislative period came to an end.

The same plan, however, is revived in a draft statute in Hamburg: Hamburg beschließt Gesetzesinitiative. Die Gerichtssprache ist … bald auch Englisch? in the German (!) legal magazine Legal Tribune.

The plan is to encourage more parties to use the Hamburg courts for international disputes. One reason for parties to litigate abroad or to use arbitration is allegedly the fact that cases in Germany are conducted in German. Chambers for international commercial matters, where the court language could be English, are to be established if the statute is passed.

Presumably the judges and all the court staff would have to have fluent English and be able to discuss German law in English.

It’s good that not all those involved are over-optimistic. One of the comments refers to an article by Wolfgang Bernet: Vom „Law made in Germany“ zur „Justice made in English“, commenting on the initiative. He points out the lack of empirical evidence that it is specifically the language of the court that frightens people off. At all events, the Hamburg courts already deal with documents in English, and if they have any doubts, they can consult a (specialist) dictionary – including online dictionaries such as LEO (sic).

Bernet thinks language may be the last reason why parties are put off.

Rechtswahl und Gerichtsstandsvereinbarungen sind Machtfragen: die geschicktere und einflussreichere Partei setzt sich in den Verhandlungen mit ihren Klauseln durch. Und da – so ist zu hören – wird selbst von Lieferanten und Herstellern mit Sitz in Deutschland das Heimatrecht keineswegs blind übernommen; erst recht mögen sich auswärtige Parteien in dieser Rolle nicht mit den käuferfreundlichen Bestimmungen des BGB und des CISG anfreunden, zudem deren Abbedingung über § 307 BGB auch im unternehmerischen Rechtsverkehr nur sehr eingeschränkt zugelassen wird. Und da man befürchten muss, dass die deutschen Gerichte, einmal angerufen, die Absichten der Vertragsparteien wohlmeinend durchkreuzen könnten und auch Rechtswahlklauseln kritisch gegenüber stehen, geht man diesem Risiko lieber aus dem Weg. Zur Steigerung der Attraktivität hier anzusetzen, könnte Erfolg versprechender sein, als bei unveränderter Rechtslage englisch zu verhandeln.

The question then arises as to how easy it is to express German legal concepts in English, particularly in oral reaction to unexpected arguments in court.

There was an example of this in the hearing reported on in my earlier entry: the court suddenly needed to use the term Grundurteil. The term was left in German and presumably defined. Romain defines this as judgment on the basis of the cause of action (reserving the amount to a later decision). It isn’t in Dietl. There’s a question about in LEO, but the link given is now dead. We had a discussion on a translators’ mailing list about this today and decided that interlocutory judgment (as used in the online ZPO translation) is misleading, because a Grundurteil is final as far as the merits of the case are concerned. But maybe the judges would consult the online translations of statutes. After all was presumably set up to help in this. I don’t know why German courts always love Dietl and not Romain: I use both.

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