Commercial cases are usually heard at the Regional Court (“Landgericht”) and, on appeal, at the Higher Regional Court (“Oberlandesgericht”). Small claim cases including commercial cases with a value of up to 5000 € are assigned to the Local Court (“Amtsgericht”).
A relevant number of the 115 Regional Courts has established Commercial Chambers (“Kammer für Handelssachen”) although there is no statutory obligation to do so. For example, the Hamburg Regional Court as the second largest Regional Court in Germany maintains 16 Commercial Chambers. They have jurisdiction over a set of selected cases specified by sec. 95 of the Courts Constitution Act, inter alia:
- claims against merchants (including legal entities) arising out of transactions that are commercial transactions for both parties
- financial and banking cases
- claims arising out of corporate relationships, e.g. between the members of a company or commercial partnership or between the managers of a commercial partnership and the company
- stock corporation cases;
- M&A cases, e.g. claims arising out of the legal relationship with regard to the acquisition of a commercial business between the previous owner and the acquirer;
- IP cases, e.g. claims based on the infringement of registered trademarks, registered designs;
- unfair competition cases;
- competition cases excluding claims for damages;
- maritime cases
The court may furthermore allocate certain cases (e.g. all IP cases) to a particular Commercial Chamber. A Commercial Chamber comprises one professional senior judge and two lay judges. Lay judges are drawn from the business community (usually senior managers) and are appointed by the competent ministry of justice. With the consent of the parties to the proceeding, which is commonly granted, the case may also be heard in the Commercial Chamber without the lay judges.
It is important to note that jurisdiction of a Commercial Chamber is not exclusive. Parties may, at their discretion, also bring their commercial cases before a regular Civil Chamber. Regional Courts situated in major industrial areas usually maintain Civil Chambers with jurisdiction over certain areas of law (e.g. IP law; competition law; unfair competition law; construction law; banking law; foreign and private international law). Cases in these Chambers may be heard by three professional judges, one of them a senior professional judge (chairman), or by a single professional judge depending on the nature of the particular case. Due to a high level of expert knowledge parties often opt for a proceeding before one of these regular but specialized Civil Chambers.
An appeal on points of fact and/or points of law is heard before one of the 24 German Higher Regional Courts. At appeal level, Commercial Chambers do not exist. However, the Appeal Courts usually allocate certain cases to particular divisions that are competent to hear cases originating from a specific area of law (equivalent to those of the Regional Courts). The same applies to the Federal Court of Justice (“Bundesgerichtshof”) which is competent to hear appeals on points of law only. The Federal Court of Justice maintains particular divisions inter alia for banking, insolvency, corporate IP and transportation law.
Proceedings before a Commercial Chamber and those before a regular Civil Chamber are governed by the same set of procedural rules. Parties submit written statements (electronic filing is partly available) during a preparatory period that is followed by one or more oral hearings. On average it takes about 14 months to obtain a decision at the Regional Court level (2015). However, complex commercial cases will usually need more time. A high number of cases are subject to settlement, which is frequently concluded after substantial assistance by the Court. Theses cases are usually settled in less than a year from commencement.