Preventing Precedent: Legislative Action Expected

There is an increasing practice of corporate defendants, mainly from the fincancial services sector, to withdraw their appeal (Revision) before the Federal Supreme Court (Bundesgerichtshof) once it becomes clear that the court will find against them to avoid a judgment that could serve as precedent against them.  As previously reported, this has led lawyers and consumer protection groups to advocate changes to the Code of Civil Procedure (ZPO). The Federal Supreme Court should be able to give judgment even if the underlying litigation has been terminated.

These proposals have been criticized as a violation of the party autonomy that should govern civil and commercial litigation, most recently by Hanns Prütting in the June edition of Anwaltsblatt (Hanns Prütting, Zivilprozess 2030, AnwBl. 2013, 401; available via the online search tool). Prütting’s diagnosis is harsh: If civil litigation, a tool to enforce private claims, is seen as serving the interest of the public at large and decisions are allowed even if the parties have terminated the proceedings by withdrawing their action or appeal, then this is a sign of a real identity crisis of civil litigation. (“Als eine echte Sinnkrise des Zivilprozesses als Instrument zur Durchsetzung individueller Ansprüche wird man es wohl auch betrachten müssen, wenn ein ehemaliger Präsident des Bundesgerichtshofs die These aufstellt, der Prozess diene vorrangig dem Allgemeininteresse und könne (jedenfalls in der Revisionsinstanz) durchgeführt und mit einem Urteil beendet werden, obgleich die Parteien durch Klagerücknahme oder Rechtsmittelrücknahme dem konkreten Verfahren eigentlich die Legitimation entzogen haben.”)

The critics failed to convince the government, however, In an interview on Legal Tribune Online last week, the minister for justice, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a liberal, has now stated her intention to pass legislation that would limit the withdrawal of appeals. She believes that the public interest in getting a decision in these cases does justify the interference with the parties’ control of the case. And of course it is true that most matters where leave of appeal has been granted by definition have a wider relevance over and above the individual case.

With the general election in September 2013 coming up, and the summer recess not far away, however, time is running out for her proposed legislation. We will know pretty soon whether a compromise can be hammered out in time or not. The minister’s plan is to include the new rules in the Act on E-Justice (Gesetz über den elektronischen Rechtsverkehr) and put them before the Parliament next week.


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