Disorder in the court

Berlin siphons off judges from states as shortages plague courts

german court system understaffed
Make it go away. Source: DPA

Last year, a wave of terror attacks across Europe sent the number of terror investigations increasing fivefold to a dizzying 1,200 in Germany alone. Sadly, it didn’t have a similar effect on manpower at the country’s top law enforcement agency.

As cases suddenly piled up, the federal prosecutor’s office struggled to cope. First, it entrusted the German states with the cases of “lesser” importance. But that wasn’t nearly enough, and the agency had more and more magistrates transferred from the states to its federal headquarters in Karlsruhe.

But this solution has an obvious drawback: It simply pushes down the workload from the federal level to the regional level and exacerbates already severe staff and funding shortages there. The situation puts an additional strain on the relationship between the federal government and the traditionally powerful states without relieving the court backlog at all.

A Handelsblatt survey of Germany’s state justice ministries found that 57 judges and prosecutors are currently on a temporary appointment to the federal prosecutor’s office. This means that more than a third of the 142 justice officials working for Germany’s federal system are actually personnel from the 16 federal states. The most affected are Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia, which are short 11 judges and prosecutors each.

Presseerklärung Bundesanwaltschaft über BVB-Fall
The federal prosecutor’s office in Karlsruhe. Source: DPA

German Attorney General Peter Frank’s pressing demands to state governments for more court officials have been met with mounting resistance. “The state justice administrations aren’t a self-service store for the federal government, nor are we here to clean up their mess,” Hesse’s state Justice Minister Eva Kühne-Hörmann said.

The wealthy western state of Hesse currently has four magistrates working for the federal attorney general in Karlsruhe. That sounds like a manageably low number, but, on the other hand, there are currently 2,066 vacancies for judges or prosecutors in the state, and that number is not going down (see chart below).

Wiesbaden, the state capital just down the river from Frankfurt, is trying to reinforce the state judiciary, with 168 new positions to be created this year, mainly to combat cybercrime and terrorism. Hesse would like to reap the benefits of its own hard work, but the federal prosecutor’s office is far from being the only federal institution gobbling up the states’ shrinking resources. Baden-Württemberg currently has seven judges and prosecutors on loan to the attorney general. But no fewer than 60 of the southwestern state’s top justice officials are with federal institutions — including 23 judges and prosecutors at the Federal Constitutional Court and 10 with the Federal Justice Ministry.

11 p08 A severe shortage of court officials-01

“Many states are increasingly reluctant to hand over their best brains to the federals, because of their own staff worries,” said Sven Rebehn, head of the German Association of Judges. Emphasizing that federal and state governments should work hand-in-hand and jointly invest significantly more in the judiciary, the outspoken judge called for a pact between Berlin and the states to uphold the rule of law and address the serious staffing bottlenecks in the judiciary.

The troubles in Germany’s court system are a counterpoint to the country’s international image as a beacon of law and order. Civil cases can drag on for years as courts struggle to find dates for hearings, and administrative courts have been backlogged since asylum applications soared in late 2015. The problems don’t stop there. According to data from the federal statistical office, some 5,500 prosecutors “completed” about 5.2 million investigations across Germany in 2016. But nearly 60 percent of the cases ended up being dismissed.

Last summer, Justice Minister Heiko Maas penned a guest column for WirtschaftsWoche in which he lambasted the states for the shortage of judges and said the problem posed a domestic security threat. But Mr. Maas agrees that the country has some work to do, too. “We need an alliance between the states and the federation to uphold our constitutional state,” the social-media-savvy minister tweeted last week.

Mr. Maas added that the federal and state governments urgently need to create at least 15,000 jobs in law enforcement and 2,000 additional positions in the judiciary. “For any future federal government, one thing must be clear: The best laws are of no use if they can’t be properly enforced.”

Heike Anger covers economics and politics for Handelsblatt. Jean-Michel Hauteville adapted the story for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: anger@handelsblatt.com.

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!