Many people are currently working from home due to COVID-19. This means that video conferences have become part of our everyday life. The effect of governmental measures to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 is also clearly noticeable in the German Judicial System. Although hearings by means of a video and audio transmissions have been available since 2001, online hearings were rarely used in judicial practices. The corona pandemic has brought a change into this. Personally, I have already attended two court hearings through video conferences.
The benefits of online court proceedings
According to §128a ZPO (German Code of Civil Procedure) oral hearings in the form of an image or sound transmission are permitted. This provision allows parties to present their cases at a location other than the court meeting room by means of an audio-visual connection. §128a ZPO allows the process economy to use modern technical possibilities to save time and costs by eliminating the need to travel long distances. For example, I recently had an online hearing that lasted 40 minutes, whereas under normal circumstances it would have taken me at least a day to travel to Germany. Under current COVID-19 restrictions, online hearings also minimized the risk of infections by reducing the number of people present in the courtroom.
When can German court proceedings take place online?
According to §128a ZPO, requesting a video trail requires a court order. Both parties will have to request an online hearing, or it can be decided by the court solely. For one of the previous cases I worked on, the court offered the possibility for an online hearing, whereas for another case I had to request the online hearing on behalf of my client. In another case, however, the request was denied. This shows that ultimately it is the court who decides whether the hearing takes place online or not. Though personal appearance in the courtroom is always possible even if a video hearing is ordered, the recording of the hearing is prohibited.
Which tools can be used for online court proceedings?
In some courts, software programs such as Skype for Business have become widespread. This means that only a computer equipped with a camera and microphone is required for the participant to be connected. The technical equipment used by the German court must be more extensive. In addition to the transmission software, recording and playback devices must be available for the courtroom. Some courts are equipped with video conference rooms, while others also have mobile equipment. Until now, however, not all courts are equipped with the necessary technical equipment.
Which proceedings are suitable for online court proceedings?
Regardless of whether technical equipment are available or not, the German court will first have to determine whether the case is suitable for an online hearing. A video trial is certainly not equivalent to a personal presence during a hearing. The disadvantage is the reduced impression of a personal confrontation but this is not the case for every hearing. For less complex cases such as short and formal matters, no physical presence is usually required.
Who can apply for an online trial?
Every party is entitled to apply for an online trial. However, the applicant cannot assume that the court has the necessary technical equipment or that the case will be accepted for an online hearing. Experience has shown that it depends on the respective court or judge and whether the possibility of video negotiation is relevant.
Online court proceedings after COVID-19?
Once the crisis is over, there is no guarantee that digital court proceedings will become a standard procedure. However, with the technical possibilities of video trials and a willingness due to positive experiences, a reasonable application of §128a ZPO for suitable cases will significantly reduce the time and travel expenses for the parties involved in the proceedings. In this respect, COVID-19 can also be considered as an opportunity for the court to implement online proceedings.
Would you like to have more information? Or are you curious to know more about how COVID-19 may impact your case in Germany? Contact us now. Our lawyers at the German desk would be more than happy to help you.
Author: Roman Zemtsovskiy