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Guide to "correct" behaviour in court

Pitfalls in the hearing

In German civil proceedings, the oral hearing is prepared by the parties' pleadings. This is even expressly regulated in Section 129 subsection 1 of the German Code of Civil Procedure (ZPO). Lawyers' proceedings mean that the parties to a legal dispute must be represented by lawyers in order to be able to appear in court and take effective procedural action. Even in proceedings in which the parties could - theoretically - represent themselves (party proceedings), the oral hearing is usually prepared by the pleadings, as the parties will regularly be represented by lawyers.

The hearing is initiated by the filing of the application (Section 137 subsection 1 ZPO). The situation is similar in administrative court (Section 103 (3) VwGO), social court (Section 112 subsections 2 and 3 SGG), labour court (Section 46 subsection 2 ArbGG) and fiscal court (Section 92 subsection 3 FGO) proceedings.

However, criminal proceedings are an exception. After the conclusion of the taking of evidence, the representative of the public prosecutor's office and the defence lawyer each make their closing statements. However, the defence lawyer is not obliged to make a specific motion.

Regardless of the type of proceedings, the importance of the oral hearing should not be underestimated. Avoidable mistakes made in the oral hearing can undo all of the lawyer's preparatory work in the written pleadings.

A good lawyer not only internalises the content of the respective files, but also prepares their own clients for an upcoming oral hearing. The client's preparation must, of course, take place within the legal limits.

In detail:

I. Behaviour during a criminal trial

1. in General

The defendant does not have to answer the charges in court. The accused has the right to remain silent, as no one can be forced to incriminate themselves (Latin: nemo tenetur se ipsum accusare). This right is essential for a fair trial (Art. 6 ECHR) and is an expression of the rule of law.

A defendant only has to provide information about his personal circumstances.

These include:

  • the first and last name;
  • the birthday;
  • the place of birth;
  • the marital status;
  • the profession;
  • the place of residence and
  • the nationality.

If a defendant provides false information about their personal circumstances or refuses to provide this information, this constitutes an administrative offence under Section 111 OWiG and can be punished with a fine of up to EUR 1,000.00.

2. pleading the case

After the indictment has been read out and the court has stated whether or not discussions have taken place in accordance with sections 202a and 212 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the defendant is asked whether he wishes to comment on the case (the accusation).

We can only recommend that every defendant refrain from commenting in any way on the case and thus on the accusation. Experience simply shows that defendants regularly "talk their heads off" during an oral hearing and the associated excitement.

Experience also shows that the courts generally use the defendant's statements against them. If the evidence is thin and an acquittal is "imminent", some judges resort to "bombarding" the defendant with questions. This is done in the hope that the defendant will contradict himself on certain points or make statements about the events before and/or after the offence, which in turn are held against any witness for the defence in order to convict him of an alleged lie.

The more intensively a defendant engages, the more vulnerable he makes himself and his potential defence witnesses.

Unfortunately, we have also seen judges try to ignore the defence lawyer and ask the defendant direct questions about the case and the defendant reacts to this in the excitement. As the defendant, you have to try to keep a cool head. In such a situation, it is advisable to look at the defence lawyer so that he can respond to the question.

II. Behaviour during a civil procedure hearing

In contrast to criminal proceedings, a party to a civil legal dispute does not have the "luxury" of being able to invoke any right to remain silent. Under German civil procedural law, every party is obliged to make complete and truthful statements of fact in accordance with Section 138 subsection 1 ZPO. A breach of the duty to tell the truth can result in the respective party being prosecuted for attempted or completed procedural fraud. If a lawyer can be proven to have deliberately told an untruth in favour of their client, this constitutes a criminal offence of aiding and abetting. In the worst case, this can even lead to the lawyer being disbarred.

During an oral hearing, the court may put questions to the parties (Section 141 ZPO). If a party refuses to answer questions, this can be assessed to the detriment of the respective party as part of the free judicial assessment of evidence (Section 286 ZPO). To the extent permitted by law, the parties may also ask each other questions, provided that the question is not merely intended to elicit information.

Investigation always occurs when a party arbitrarily makes any allegations in order to obtain factual information.

III. Oral proceedings in the other jurisdictions

In the other jurisdictions, the courts can also hear the parties or parties involved at any time for information on certain matters. The respective client should always be made aware of this so that they can prepare themselves adequately and do not feel taken by surprise.

IV. Conclusion

In view of the above, it should be noted that clients who have little or no court experience in particular must be adequately informed about the course of the hearing. In particular, it should be discussed before an oral hearing what the client should do if they are unsure about how to proceed. After all, it is better to be safe than sorry.

Tolga Topuz

November 2023 - Düsseldorf -

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