Rusty Justice

Little relief for clogged courts

NSA-Untersuchungsausschuss Abschlussbericht
Good luck with that. Source: DPA

Investments by Germany’s 16 states in the country’s justice system will grow only slightly next year but won’t be enough to fill shortages in the ranks of judges and prosecutors, or to renovate aging and crumbling courtrooms. States will boost spending next year by an average 1.7 percent, according to a Handelsblatt survey, or a total €17 billion ($20.1 billion).

The troubles in Germany’s court and penal system stand as a counter-point to the country’s external 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 become backlogged since asylum applications soared in late 2015. The problems don’t stop there. Criminal courts often dismiss minor infractions to focus on bigger crimes – last year in Berlin alone 14,779 small cases were dismissed, compared to 6,890 in 2012.

“These are all clear indicators of an overloaded justice system, which worries us,” said Sven Rebehn, head of the German association of judges. “The rule of law is gradually eroding.” Mr. Rebehn isn’t the only one concerned. Justice Minister Heiko Maas, of the center-left Social Democrats, recently criticized German states, which are primarily responsible for running the country’s justice system, for failing to hire enough judges. Estimates say the country is short 2,000 judges and prosecutors. The politician went so far as to say the lack of hiring was creating “a risk for domestic security.”

Prozessbeginn Regensburg
In need of a good polish. Source: DPA

The warnings are nothing new to insiders of Germany’s legal system. Ralph Knispel, head of the Berlin prosecutors’ association, has for years been pushing for the capital to hire more attorneys and to update its technology. The complaints, he said, have had little effect – the positions that have been added don’t even cover the increase in the number of cases. “Citizens have a right to a functioning legal system. In Berlin, that’s not the case for very significant areas,” said Mr. Knispel, who is also a ranking prosecutor. “In white collar cases, it can take years until there’s even a trial.”

Mr. Knispel’s complaints would seem like basic lobbying efforts by the head of an industry association, except that he has the backing of Germany’s federal administrative court. Pay for the city’s judges and prosecutors is so low it’s unconstitutional, it recently ruled. Working conditions are noticeably poor – 800 employees share a single copier in Mr. Knispel’s office. And it doubles as a scanner. Employees are often drafted by federal prosecutors or the city-state’s government for other duties, which means employment statistics for Berlin prosecutors don’t reflect the actual situation.

Still, Berlin spends more per capita than most German regions do – €269 per resident. Hamburg leads with €283 per resident while Lower Saxony and Baden-Wuerttemberg come in at the bottom with €163. Bremen, which is lowering its investment in its legal system next year, spends €187 per person but said the figure is misleading – it doesn’t include cash from outside the legal budget for digitizing the city-state’s legal system.

The Handelsblatt survey only included old estimates for Germany’s most populous state, North-Rhine Westphalia, because a new government was elected in May and hasn’t finalized the budget. The new justice minister, Peter Biesenbach of the center-right Christian Democrats, said he noticed the lack of investment when he took over. Some prisons are in desperate need of renovation and others will have to be torn down and rebuilt because of a lack of maintenance. “We will have to help with personnel and additional funding to make the legal system fit for the future,” he said. Mr. Biesenbach wants to invest in a “well-prepared justice system that’s connected Europe-wide.”

Mr. Rebehn, of the country’s association of judges, says it’s time for federal politicians to make good on all the law-and-order talk during the recent federal election. The country, he said, doesn’t need more laws; it needs successful prosecution of those that are already on the books.

Heike Anger covers economics and politics for Handelsblatt. To contact the author:,

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