Background Information: The German Court Structure

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Articles 92-96 of the German Constitution (Grundgesetz) deal with the court structure in Germany. As a Federal Republic, Germany’s courts are divided between the Fededration (Bund) and the States (Länder). On the federal level there is a supreme court for each of the five major jurisdictions, in addition to the Federal Constitutional Court. Other than a few other courts (such as military tribunals and the Federal Patent Court) named specifically in the Constitution, these are the only Federal Courts permitted - to set up another would require a constitutional amendment. All other courts are therefore courts of the Länder.The five major jurisdictions are:-

Alongside these jurisdictions is the Verfassungsgerichtsbarkeit.


The Verfassungsgerichtsbarkeit is the constitutional jurisdiction, consisting of the Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht, BVerfG - see separate introduction to its role, also on this server) and the State Constitutional Courts (Landesverfassungsgerichte, LVerfG). The Landesverfassungsgerichte are not in the same hierarchical structure as the Bundesverfassungsgericht, but rather each is a court of first and last instance in its own hierarchy. Thus the BVerfG has exclusive jurisdiction over issues relating to the Federal Constitution (Grundgesetz), and each LVerfG has exclusive jurisdiction over its State Constitution (Landesverfassung). Interestingly, it is not a duty, but rather a right for each Land to set up a LVerfG, if it chooses to. Thus not all Länder originally established one, and some have exercised the right more flexibly to set up a Staatsgerichtshof (StGH) rather than a Landesverfassungsgericht, which acts as a supreme court of general jurisdiction in the Land, and is not restricted to constitutional disputes.

ordentliche Gerichtsbarkeit

The ordentliche Gerichtsbarkeit, literally translated, is the ‘ordinary jurisdiction’, but is in reality two jurisdictions: civil (Zivilgerichtsbarkeit) and criminal (Strafgerichtsbarkeit). Historically the civil and criminal courts were grouped together under the 'ordinary jurisdiction', because they were the only ones in which qualified judges sat; state officials fulfilled the judicial function in the specialist courts (below). This distinction is a little dated, since qualified judges now sit in all the courts.

The ordentliche Gerichtsbarkeit is by far the largest jurisdiction, with figures from 1985 indicating that, of the total of 17,000 judges in Germany, approximately 13,000 were in this jurisdiction. The courts in the jurisdiction, in descending order of seniority, are the Bundesgerichtshof (BGH), Oberlandesgerichte (OLG), Landesgerichte (LG) and Amtsgerichte (AG). Each court has a civil chamber (Zivilkammer) and a criminal chamber (Strafkammer).


The Verwaltungsgerichtbarkeit is the general administrative jurisdiction, covering all public law disputes of a non-constitutional nature.


The Arbeitsgerichtsbarkeit is the employment law jurisdiction, and includes trade union disputes.


The Sozialgerichtsbarkeit is the 'social' jurisdiction, covering public law disputes relating to state welfare payments and the like.


The Finanzgerichtsbarkeit is the fiscal jurisdiction, taking in public law disputes relating to taxation.

David Thorneloe, 5.12.96