ChatGPT in the news for lawyers in Germany too

Great excitement has been caused by the case reported in the New York Times (and elsewhere): Here’s What Happens When Your Lawyer Uses ChatGPT – a ten-page pleading submitted by a law firm for its client

cited more than half a dozen relevant court decisions. There was Martinez v. Delta Air Lines, Zicherman v. Korean Air Lines and, of course, Varghese v. China Southern Airlines, with its learned discussion of federal law and “the tolling effect of the automatic stay on a statute of limitations.”

But all these decisions had been invented by ChatGPT, which the lawyer had used to help him write the pleading (US brief).

There’s been some discussion about German lawyers using AI in the beck-community blog.

ChatGPT – Nutzungen durch Anwälte: gefährliche rechtliche Klippen sind zu umschiffen is an entry by Dr. Axel Spies. It refers to an article which I don’t have access to. The main conclusion is that it is a violation of the GDPR (German DSGVO) to enter a client’s name, for example, into ChatGPT. It’s hard to imagine this happening in Europe. But obviously, even in the USA the judge soon noticed the problem. I suppose ChatGPT could devise deceptive arguments, but once it invents facts, it should be obvious it is false.

One commenter on the blog entry actually asked ChatGPT what lawyers should think of a chatbot’s legal advice:

Das meint ChatGPT selbst zu dem Thema:

Als KI-Chatbot kann ich keine Rechtsberatung geben, aber ich kann Ihnen allgemeine Informationen zur Verfügung stellen. …

Zweitens müssen Rechtsanwälte sicherstellen, dass die von ChatGPT bereitgestellten Informationen korrekt und aktuell sind. Rechtsanwälte können sich nicht allein auf ChatGPT verlassen, um rechtliche Fragen zu beantworten, sondern müssen ihre Recherchen sorgfältig prüfen und zusätzliche Informationen sammeln, um eine vollständige und zuverlässige Antwort zu erhalten.

Peter Winslow reports on the US case in German on the beck-community blog too.


Von Amts wegen

I was always pleased with myself when I recognized whether von Amts wegen was to be translated as ex officio or as of (the court’s) own motion.

But I never asked myself why. Recently, someone has asked why!

It seems that the term ex officio is used in more situations in German than in English. Here is the von Beseler/Jacobs-Wüstefeld dictionary of 1991 on von Amts wegen:


ex officio, by virtue of (one’s) office; because of one’s position; officially; proprio motu (Lat.); upon (of its) own motion; upon/of the court’s (own) motion; in ordinary

I think if someone does something by virtue of their office, ex officio works. But if a court comes to a decision, perhaps because it usually deliberates about it, then of its own motion is appropriate.

I looked up both expressions in the big Oxford English Dictionary, but they don’t add anything much to this.

I have one other excellent law dictionary but I don’t speak much Italian so I have never read the introduction, which I am sure is wonderful. I must scan it and run it through DeepL. It is by, Francesco de Franchis, Dizionario Giuridico English-Italian, 1984

He even says where ex officio would not be used in English. It is the bilingual law dictionary every translator wants, but it is in the wrong language.

Di ufficio; si dice, ad es., che il Lord Chancellor (v.) è un giudice della Court of Appeal ex officio, come pure il President della Chancery Division e il Lord Chief Justice. Ma si noti che quando si vuole alludere ad una iniziative di ufficio e ad una istanza di parte si parla, rispettivamente, di suo officio e di its own motion e di at the instance of the parties.






Basil Markesinis obituaries

Sir Basil Markesinis died on 23 April 2023. There was an obituary in The Times today and in the Daily Telegraph two weeks ago. Telegraph:

The multilingual, cosmopolitan son of a former prime minister of Greece, Markesinis held, successively, the chairs of European Law and then Comparative Law at the University of Oxford, where he founded the Oxford Institute of European and Comparative Law.

Moving to London as Professor of Common and Civil Law at University College (UCL), he established the Institute of Global Law (“exceeded only by galactic”, observed one wag), holding the position simultaneously with a part-time chair at the University of Texas at Austin, where a legal colleague was quoted as describing him as “one active b—-r and as wise as a tree full of owls”.

It was quite an exciting read. If you have access to the Times or the Telegraph, you can see a photo of him wearing red trousers.  I only knew his comparative-law books on The German Law of Contract and The German Law of Torts, both several times revised and updated. I used them a lot but I regret I have never found time to read them at length. But I have long been looking forward to doing so.

Just last week the ITI German Reading Group was reading the novel “Corpus Delicti” by Juli Zeh, who under her real name is an honorary judge (proposed by the SPD) in the constitutional court of Brandenburg. I didn’t think the legal vocabulary in this science fiction novel would be a big problem for translators, but I noticed the term überholende Kausalität and wondered how I would translate it, if it were essential to the plot or to a legal text. And so I looked at Markesinis on the German law of torts. He refers to overtaking causes. An example is a medical practitioner who blinds a patient who would have subsequently become blind in any case. He queries whether overtaking is the less appropriate adjective than overtaken, which is something I was trying to get my own head around.

At all events, those two books are a really full and useful read, with plenty of references to German sources.

Twenty years of Transblawg

I remembered that this blog started on 15 April 2003 so it is now over twenty years old.

First post, 15.04.2003

But looking older. There were other translation blogs and legal blogs (blawgs) at that time, although I think even then blogging was a bit old hat. When I was teaching legal translation at the IFA in Erlangen (which is 75 years old this year), I made my own material and I used to answer other translators’ questions on legal translation in a number of forums. In those days, people were not shy to show their ignorance online, as I think advertising one’s expertise on the internet was a newish thing. I certainly built my business on internet contacts, some of which even preceded the WWW and were made in Unix. I remember the noise of my first modem connection in the mid-90s with excitement.Today I follow a lot of blogs through Feedly, but really there is so much else to read online that I don’t usually feel like researching the background to new items. This blog is almost dead. But I do think it was a good idea to take a narrow focus, on legal translation rather than all kinds of translation.

What is on my radar today?

1. The German Federal Ministry of Justice has published a draft bill to introduce English-language commercial courts in Germany.

I’ve blogged on this issue on and off since 2010.

A number of Länder have introduced English-language courts, but this is the first federal initiative I can remember.

One problem with the bill is that appeal to the Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof) is always to be possible, and that court may decide either in English or in German. This is unlikely to be attractive to international parties. Decisions at all levels are to be translated into and published in German.

I’d just like to say something about the ability of German judges to speak English. I recall hearing that some judges think their English is very good or are married to native speakers of English, and being very keen to be involved in an English-language case, possibly for reasons of prestige. In the only case I have heard a detailed report of (by a translator colleague who sat in on it), none of the lawyers or parties were native speakers of English, and they weren’t all Germans either.

At the end of a post in February 2014, I mentioned a case where the court was talking about the term Grundurteil in English. They decided to use the German word, a good idea. It does seem very strange for non-native speakers who have a good understanding of German law to talk in a foreign language about something intrinsically German.

It was a good idea to keep the German term, and I don’t think every judge in that position would have decided to do that. It’s part of the kind of technique that experienced translators and interpreters develop. Another part of that is deciding whether Dietl’s English version is good. (I always prefer Romain, but that doesn’t solve every problem). I got the impression that the judges did not have a critical approach to bilingual dictionaries. You don’t have to be a professional or particularly qualified translator to know these things, but it might help if someone in court does not just “speak good English”, whatever that means.

2. Here (again) is one of my photos of Dominic Raab, the second time and hopefully last that he was Lord Chancellor. October 2021.

How to translate numbers

Victor Dewsbery has added a post in his blog Language Mystery going into great (and alas necessary) detail on millions, milliards, billions, trillions etc.

Translating numbers: 1. How much is a billion?

This history of the number systems has also created “false friends” for translators. A German “Billion” is not the same as an English “billion”. The words “Trillion” and “Quadrillion” are also misleading. And a German “Milliarde” is not a “milliard”.

This much I remember, and I am very grateful to Victor for setting it out so well. Take a look around for other topics while you’re there.

How to address a judge

Via Joshua Rozenberg’s newsletter – the free version – at A Lawyer Writes – nowadays most judges can be addressed as “Judge” rather than “Sir” or “Madam”. I suppose this avoids gender problems and wonder if that was the reason for the change (announced on December 1 2022).

You should still address lay magistrates as Sir or Madam. If you are not sure which is appropriate, try Your Worship. That also works as a collective: Your Worships. Many magistrates will tell you they have been addressed as Your Holiness by confused defendants or those hoping for a more benign sentence.

The diagram What do I call a judge? makes it no clearer. I love the surnames used – “District Judge Kherallah” or “First-tier Tribunal Judge Curry”.


In response to a comment unexpectedly received, here is a longer quote from Rozenberg’s newsletter (i.e. virtually the whole thing):

How do you address a judge in court? Top judges are addressed as My Lord or My Lady. Most circuit judges are addressed as Your Honour. I was taught to address any High court master as Master. And until yesterday some of the most junior judges in England and Wales were simply called Sir or Madam.


That’s all gone. From now onwards, any judge in one of the following categories is to be addressed simply as Judge:

  • Masters
  • Upper Tribunal Judges
  • Judges of the Employment Appeal Tribunal
  • District Judges
  • District Judges (Magistrates Courts)
  • First-Tier Tribunal Judges
  • Employment Judges

Why? According to the lord chief justice and the senior president of tribunals,

the move away from “Sir or Madam” involves modern and simple terminology, reflecting the important judicial role whilst maintaining the necessary degree of respect.

We also hope this change in language will assist litigants-in-person involved in court and tribunal proceedings.


And, I suppose, it will reduces the risk of misgendering judges.

Calling a judge “Judge” may sound a bit disrespectful. But it’s how you address them formally when they’re not sitting in open court.

You should still address lay magistrates as Sir or Madam. If you are not sure which is appropriate, try Your Worship. That also works as a collective: Your Worships. Many magistrates will tell you they have been addressed as Your Holiness by confused defendants or those hoping for a more benign sentence.

And Sir or Madam remains appropriate for lay members of a tribunal. High Court registrars should be addressed as Registrar, which is inconsistent and a bit harder to say.

The changes apply only to the way in which judges are addressed in court or at tribunals. It does not affect judicial titles.


I have now found my copy of The Language of Advocacy by Keith Evans, one of my favourite books and not just about England and Wales. It is dated 1998 (but still in print), so before the House of Lords became the Supreme Court. Evans writes that “no appeal court Justice will ever take offence at being called simply ‘Judge’. It’s an illustration of the old truism that those who matter don#t care, and those who care don’t matter.”

Of course, now the judges of the Supreme Court are called justices, which might not alter the relevance of the above but did prompt the judges of the German Constitutional Court to wish to be called “justices” in English translations.


There is also a post on this on free movement.


A number of bits of news.

  1. An article in the Law Gazette on April 19 2022: Official court judgments database goes live

I haven’t had occasion to use this yet. It’s worth looking at the comments to see its possible limitations. Till now, we have been very happy to use BAILII, but it’s good to have an official initiative and I think the two may complement each other. Note on the BAILII website there are links to other collections.

2. New German phonetic alphabet:

Stuttgart hat es nicht geschafft, auch Augsburg blieb auf der Strecke. Und Bremen ist als einziges Bundesland nicht dabei. Buchstabiert wird künftig von A wie Aachen bis Z wie Zwickau.

Wikipedia has a table showing Switzerland and Austria too. It doesn’t worry me that the towns are all in Germany rather than Switzerland and Austria, as long as they’re comprehensible on the phone. At one time the table contained D for David (older Germans are often suspicious about the name David), N for Nathan and Z for Zechariah. The Nazis replaced these with Dora, Nordpol and Zeppelin, but they are now Düsseldorf, Nürnberg and Zwickau.

3. I dare hardly dip a toe into the problem of making German gender-neutral. Someone posted a shot of a page of this book on Twitter: Wie schreibe ich divers? Wie spreche ich gendergerecht? Ein Praxis-Handbuch zu Gender und Sprache, by Lann Hornscheidt and Ja’n Sammla (whether the authors’ names are as they appeared on their birth certificates it doesn’t say). Here’s a quote from an amazon review:

Wenn es nach Hornscheidt und Sammla geht, gehe ich zukünftig nicht mit meiner Mutter, sondern mit meinens Meema zur Familienfeier. Dort treffe ich nicht meinen Opa und eine Tante, sondern meinex Opmex und ens Tonkel. – Was hier aussieht als wäre eine Katze über die Tastatur gelaufen, wird so wirklich und ernsthaft vorgeschlagen. (S.95 Tabelle 1) Sprache wird hier, um eine andere Rezension zu zitieren, “wie Knetmasse” behandelt, die sich nach Belieben verformen lässt. Ein lächerlicher und irgendwo schon fast bemitleidenswerter Ansatz an der völlig falschen Stelle.

Wir haben uns jedenfalls köstlich amüsiert, wie hier doch allen Ernstes erwartet wird, dass man die “böse Hexe” in einem Märchen zur “sehr weisen Person” umformuliert.

Tweet with screenshot

Marc Prior has created a website,, with an article on the problem of feminine/masculine, which considers the possibility of generic neuter.

5. Professor Dr. Tinka Reichmann of Leipzig University has linked some diagrams of the German court system with translations into various languages. There doesn’t seem to be anything new here though.

We used to have diagrams, now outdated, from a book on German law for schools, in which the number of judges was indicated by little human figures in various numbers, which seemed easier to look at. I would be confused by one of these diagrams in English alone and wonder what the significance of panels vs. chambers was.

This and that

I have almost given up this blog, but here are a few legal/translation points while I am passing through.

Divorce vocabulary

This week English law at last provided a possibility of no-fault divorce. Previously the only way to get a divorce relatively promptly involved spouses accusing each other of behaviour of various kinds (‘unreasonable behaviour’, meaning behaviour the other spouse could not reasonably be expected to live with). (No-fault divorce is possible in Scotland though).

New divorce laws will come into force from 06 April 2022

So just to make things more interesting for translators, some of the vocabulary has changed. A divorce petition becomes an application, a petitioner an applicant, a decree nisi a conditional order and a divorce decree a divorce order.

Thanks to Laura Elvin for pointing that out.

Beziehungsweise / bzw.

I don’t think I’ve written much about this, but it is a problem to translate.

Without warming up the long discussion on translators’ forums, I would like to quote what a colleague read in a German Patent Office examination report:

“Das Bindewort beziehungsweise (bzw.) ist nicht zur Schaffung zweifelsfreier Rechte geeignet, da es als und, oder oder auch als und/oder verstanden werden kann.”

I love this. I like the bit where they say “… da es als und, oder oder auch als und/oder verstanden werden kann.”
So there is a difference between “und, oder” and “und/oder”.
They could have written “…da es als und, oder bzw. als und/oder verstanden werden kann”, couldn’t they?

Speeding fines based on income

Juliette Scott in her blog From Words to Deeds finds it odd that speeding fines in Finland are based on income.

But it isn’t so odd. In Germany too, and no doubt in other countries outside the UK, the amount of the fine varies between the rich and the poor. So you get a number of points, called Tagessätze, and what a point is worth depends on your income. It makes sense to me.

There used to be problems translating the word Tagessätze. It seemed poor grammar to call it daily rates. I now write daily units. This is because the term was used when the system was briefly introduced in the UK. The problem arises if you write in the papers the exact sum the rich person has to pay, rather than the number of units or the percentage of income used. I suppose that the average newspaper reader is not aware how much richer some people are than others.

This is all so long ago that I’ve forgotten the details. In fact I note that in 2021 and presumably 2022 too, the most egregious speeding fines were related to income. Speeding fines 2021.

Forensic linguistics in German criminal procedure

The latest edition of Language and Law/Linguagem e Direito is a special issue arising from a one day symposium looking at the way expert evidence is handled in different jurisdictions.

It contains an article by Sabine Ehrhardt of the Bundeskriminalamt looking at how forensic linguistic evidence and experts are handled in the German criminal court system. Forensic Linguistics in German law enforcement.

The main emphasis is on a case where forensic linguistics evidence was required to analyse text messages sent to the victim’s mother before and after the victim’s disappearance, answering the question: no body has been found, but did her husband kill her and fake the circumstances of her disappearance? The case was based on circumstantial evidence, of which the text messages were only part.

It was striking but perhaps not surprising that in the 200-page summary of the judgment, the judge seems to have completely misunderstood some of the expert’s arguments. The article queries whether German lawyers receive enough training in forensic linguistics.

Incidentally, the English of the article was good, but I really dislike the translation of Nebenklägerin – taken straight from Dietl – as joint plaintiff. My suggestion is private co-prosecutor. This refers to the role of the victim’s mother. I know the German “Kläger(in)” is closer to plaintiff than prosecutor, but it seems odd in a criminal court. – Romain has additional private prosecutor, which is better, although it seems to suggest that there are multiple private prosecutors, unless you put commas in.


It’s only a few months before divorce law in England and Wales becomes more sensible. But currently, if you want a fairly quick divorce, the easiest way is to prove that your spouse’s behaviour is ‘unreasonable’, that is, not reasonably acceptable to you.

In times of iSmash, iBroken and so on, it’s not surprising that there is a firm called iDivorce. A judge has recently rapped them over the knuckles for having 28 clients with virtually identical wording with regard to the respondents’ behaviour.

Judge spots clowntown divorce factory using identical wording in 28 petitions (RollOnFriday):

IDivorces’ efficient but unlawful approach had resulted in declarations that were untrue, said The judge. “If I needed to give an example, it would be to say that it would be incredible if all twenty eight respondents ignored the twenty eight petitioners and declined to communicate with them on about two days per week”, he said.