As in other civil law jurisdictions, case law (rechtsprechung) plays a much more limited role in Germany than it does in common law jurisdictions. For the most part, the German judiciary does not operate under the principle of stare decisis, and the vast majority of decisions issued by German courts are only binding on the parties to the proceedings. In practice, however, judges may, and often do, take decisions issued in prior cases into consideration, even though they are not bound by them. The only judicial decisions that are legally binding on lower courts are those issued by the Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht).
Decisions of the highest federal courts are still published in official print reporters, some of which are available at the Georgetown Law Library. Recent judicial decisions are often available on court websites, some of which may offer limited navigation in English. Bear in mind that many court websites do not offer searchable case law databases. Instead, you must browse chronologically by the date of decision (or by docket number or party name). Dates of coverage vary by court. English translations are rarely provided.
Subscription-based German language legal research platforms, such as Beck-Online and Juris, offer more comprehensive, searchable databases of German case law, but the Georgetown Law Library does not provide access to these platforms. Lexis and Westlaw, the largest subscription-based U.S. legal research platforms, do not make German case law available to their U.S. academic subscribers.
Decisions issued by the Constitutional Court and the Court of Justice are the easiest to locate. Print reporters are the best sources for older decisions issued prior to the late 1990s. More recent decisions may be downloaded from free online case law databases accessed through the courts' respective websites. Decisions issued by these courts are also the most likely to be translated into English. In practice, only a small fraction of them are translated.
Decisions issued by the specialized courts listed below during the past 10-15 years usually are available for download from court-maintained case law databases. These databases may be browsed chronologically by the date of decision or by party name or docket number. Many of them also offer keyword searching, but you must enter search terms in German. Dates of coverage vary by court.
Court websites are the best places to look. The Justice Authorities of Germany's Federal and State Governments maintain this convenient online directory of German court websites. When navigating court websites, keep the following in mind:
High-quality translations of judicial decisions are costly and time-consuming to produce. Consequently, only a small fraction of decisions issued by German courts are translated. Generally speaking, they are limited to landmark decisions issued by the Federal Constitutional Court and the Federal Court of Justice, and to decisions issued by lower courts that are likely to have a significant economic or social impact.
In addition to court websites, the resources described below are the best places to look for English translations of German court decisions. If no translation is available, an in-depth analysis of a court decision, or a summary thereof, published in a journal article or in another secondary source, is the best alternative.