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Germany to explore digital justice tools for citizens

Out-Law News | 22 Dec 2021 | 1:59 pm | 2 min. read

German citizens could soon be able to digitally file a claim with the courts following a review commissioned by the new German justice minister.

"The digitalisation of the judiciary is important to me," tweeted the new German minister of justice Marco Buschmann on 17 December. "Therefore, today I have commissioned a discovery sprint for two projects: an online claims tool and an assisting chatbot. This is to digitise and facilitate access to justice."

A discovery sprint is a process in the development of digital products. It delivers a prototype that has already been adapted to the needs of future users through user feedback.

Back in August, the German Ministry of Justice (BMJ) - at that time still lead by the former justice minister Christine Lambrecht and operating under a different name - launched the project for an online claims tool. The tool would allow citizens to easily file claims with the courts online. A matching chatbot - an digital assistant similar to Siri or Alexa - could guide them through the individual steps of the online lawsuit and answer their questions.

According to the BMJ, consumers in Germany shy away from pursuing their claims in court, especially if damages of less than €2,000 are in dispute. In August, former state secretary for justice, Dr Margaretha Sudhof, said that her ministry wanted to use the online claim tool to use digitalisation to further simplify and improve access to justice.

"Digital tools open up new ways of interaction between the judiciary and people seeking justice, "” she said. "They also lead to a more resource-efficient work by the courts, so that the courts may primarily concentrate on the concerns of those seeking justice. That is why it is important to also learn in a practical test of online tools how we can best make use of these tools in the interest of law-seeking citizens and a well-functioning legal system."

Johanna Weißbach, dispute resolution expert at Pinsent Masons, said that the tool could lead to an increase in lawsuits, especially in the area of consumer protection: "That is why the issue is of great importance for businesses," she said. "When introducing the tool, it needs to be assured that the courts are able to handle the caseload. The facilitation of access to justice must go hand in hand with the announced support of the courts, particularly with regard to mass action proceedings. Otherwise, German civil courts will soon be facing an even greater burden. There are more and more voices from the judiciary stating that the flood of proceedings can no longer be managed."

Only a few weeks ago, the Conference of Ministers of Justice (JuMiKo) called for a reform package to deal with mass proceedings. According to their  resolution (PDF/119 KB - in German language), increasing staff numbers and digitisation alone are not sufficient to cope with the growing number of mass proceedings. The JuMiKo has proposed a review of Germany’s civil law, civil procedure law, professional and legal services law as well as the laws on fees and costs. This review should consider whether legislative changes in these fields would mean that legal disputes can be resolved more quickly.

In the latest edition of the eBrochure Electronic Legal Transactions, Dr Wolfram Viefhues said: "Courts can also benefit from the claims tool since it can be used to process many similar cases, which occur in large numbers and require a very rule-based and standardised examination, more easily, more quickly and with less effort." Viefhues worked as a judge in Germany and is considered an expert in the field of court digitalisation.

Germany’s new government had already announced in its coalition agreement that it intends to reform the judiciary and, above all, digitise it, among other things by making it easier to enforce small claims "in citizen-friendly digital procedures".

Michèle Heil, litigation expert at Pinsent Masons, said: "When implementing such legal tech solutions, however, the principles of German civil procedural law must not be forgotten. The German parliament has already stressed this this in September this year. A timely implementation of the online claims tool therefore depends on a suitable legal basis that combines the procedural principles and digitalisation.”