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How judges in Germany work

Committed only to the law: five facts about the occupation of judge in Germany.

Julia Bröder, 28.06.2019
An office that brings great responsibility: the occupation of being a judge
An office that brings great responsibility: the occupation of being a judge © dpa

German judges are not subject to directives. They work entirely independently and their only obligation is to the law. This ensures that a judge can rule objectively and impartially. After all, in their function presiding over court proceedings, judges are the supreme legal authority and it is they who pass judgement.

Jurors, meaning lay judges in an honorary capacity, are very rarely involved in penal proceedings in Germany. This is in contrast for example to circumstances in the US, where jurors have power of decision even in serious crime cases. In Canada, Belgium, Malta, France and Austria collective adjudication with jurors is also customary.

The tasks of a judge

Autonomy also brings a great degree of individual responsibility with it. The ability to work in a structured way and organizational skills are basic prerequisites for the profession of judge. While there are set days on which the court convenes and trials take place, a great part of a judge’s time is taken up by working through records, researching details, and summoning witnesses.

Specialization on one branch of law

As a general rule, judges are specialized in a certain branch of law, such as family, criminal or civil law. That said, within these branches, too, cases can be very diverse. The judge must understand all of the details in order to pass a fair verdict. Unlike how things are done in the US, for example, examining witnesses is one of the tasks carried out by German judges. The big challenge lies in making certain one is not swayed by the expertise of proficient lawyers and defense attorneys, and remaining neutral at all times.

Requirements for judges

The requirements a person must fulfil in Germany to be appointed a judge are German citizenship and the “qualification for judicial office,” which is achieved through outstanding grades in both Staatsexamen state examinations - with a score of a minimum of 8.0 points.

Appointment of judges in Germany

The ministries of justice of the federal German states are responsible for appointing judges. This is not supposed to have any influence on the independence of judiciary from the legislative. However, the relationship between politics and the office of judge in Germany is not uncontroversial on an international stage. That said other countries have seen much more rigorous debate. In late June 2019, the European Court of Justice ruled that the compulsory retirement of judges by the state tied to the judicial reform in Poland was an infringement of European law. In Russia – where law graduates must have five years of professional experience before being qualified for the bench – judges are often felt to be politically biased, such that the trust the general public has in them is low. In Germany on the other hand the office of judge is among the most highly regarded professional categories.

Judge on probation at first, then judge for life

In Germany, newcomers start out their career as judges on probation, then after three to five years they become officials for life.