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German Law

Berlin backs mediation to keep civil suits out of court

For many, compromise-focused mediation is a cheaper, quicker solution to civil lawsuits. With Germany's court system buckling at the knees, the Bundestag has voted to lend mediation more support.

Gavel and lawbook

One reason for mediation is to avoid court altogether

The lower house of German parliament, the Bundestag, voted unanimously Thursday in favor of a new mediation law to implement a 2008 European Union guideline for the use of mediation in civil and commercial conflict. It gives new legal weight to mediation by creating a more defined role for mediators acting in tangent to a court proceeding.

"It means more security for the client and better legitimization for us,“ said Christoph Paul, former spokesman for the German Consortium for Family Mediation.

Mediation already accounts for some 20,000 cases that are resolved outside the German court system every year.

How mediation can work

It could happen to anyone:

In the dead of winter, a supermarket customer steps on an icy patch in front of the shop's entrance, slips and lands on her back.

Three people in a meeting

Currently, anyone in Germany can legally call himself a mediator

With a little luck the customer gets up and brushes herself off. Once in a while though, someone is not so lucky. The person suffers spine damage and, after a long hospital stay, is wheelchair-bound for the rest of her life. She can no longer perform her old job, so her boss fires her. She decides to sue the grocery store, demanding compensation for personal suffering and the loss of her job, as well as reimbursement for medical costs and making her home and car wheelchair-friendly. She wants a total 750,000 euros ($975,000) .

In order to avoid drawn-out court proceedings, the grocery store manager aims for an out-of-court settlement. He calls in a mediator, whose efforts lead to an astonishing outcome: The legal dispute is ended peacefully; the supermarket gives the victim a lifetime position as sales director, and she receives 75,000 euros in damages, paid in grocery vouchers over the next decade.

Crowded courts

In Germany, plaintiffs generally face over four months' wait before their civil cases reach court. In district courts, the wait is nearly twice as long. The outcome is unsure, and the risk is high.

In light of the risks, mediation can be a less expensive and time-saving alternative. One mediator, Andreas Kövel, co-owner of the Düsseldorf mediation firm Consens, calls it a "considerable relief“ to the court system.

In Germany, mediation is an increasingly popular route for conflicts pertaining to labor law, but it is especially employed in family law.

Another success story is the case of Karin and Stefan S., half-siblings who argued over the inheritance of their deceased father's house. Both parties demanded 75 percent of the sales price. At the beginning of mediation, the two are dead-set against each other.

man and woman sit across from each other

Mediation is most commonly used to resolve family disputes

Over five mediation sessions, both sides say at different points they want to quit the negotiations. Both say mediation cannot work. But in the end, they come up with a solution, whereby the sister continues to live in the house's attic, and the income from renting out the house is split.

Saved costs

Mediators earn an average 250 euros an hour, but even after handing over 1,250, the half-siblings have saved substantial court costs. And the result, their father's house staying in family hands, is beyond the two's expectations.

Mediation emphasizes compromise; it's the mediator's duty not to represent one side but to remain neutral. Mediators are often but not necessarily lawyers. Psychologists and social workers can also undergo mediation training. But the title of mediator is not legally protected in Germany like other professions, meaning anyone can call himself a mediator.

Andreas Kövel of the Düsseldorf mediation firm Consens emphasizes that mediation does not prevent sides from consulting lawyers. But even with the help of attorneys, the success rate of mediation remains high: 80 to 90 percent of cases are resolved by mutual agreement.

Author: Matthias von Hellfeld / dl
Editor: Andreas Illmer

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