Standstill vs. innovation
Under Article 8 of the Federal Constitutional Law, German is the official language of the Republic of Austria. Therefore, court proceedings must be conducted in German. While little has been done so far to officially establish English as a second court language, some Austrian attorneys, businesses and judges are pushing for proceedings to be conducted in English. The president of the Commercial Court in Vienna, for example, has been advocating for English proceedings and has proposed a pilot project in this regard.
The goal is to provide commercial courts with English-speaking departments, starting with the court of first instance and ensuring entirely English-speaking proceedings all the way to the Austrian Supreme Court. The idea is to conduct oral hearings, file submissions and provide evidence in English without costly and time-consuming translations. The courts would then issue their decisions in English. Consequently, appellate proceedings would also be conducted in English.
The benefits of establishing English as the new lingua franca
Bringing in English would strengthen the principle of immediacy. Since a court-certified translator is required when examining non-German-speaking witnesses, this might lead to a biased impression of the judge. Usually, not every word is translated individually but the content is summarised. The choice of words and facial expressions may be crucial to assessing the credibility of a witness.
It would also foster efficiency and save money. Since legal representatives in international disputes regularly communicate entirely in English with their clients, there would be no need to translate every document before submitting them.
In addition, English presents a challenge to the judiciary and makes it much more attractive for the younger generation, as it allows judges to speak a foreign language in court.
Finally, it would promote Austria as a business location. Resolving legal matters efficiently is a key factor in creating a favourable business environment. Therefore, it would prevent the migration of (economically) significant proceedings into different jurisdictions.
In addition to the Vienna International Arbitral Centre, Vienna could also become an international litigation centre. This would make the city an extremely attractive forum for dispute resolution and present a valid alternative to arbitration.
How could this be implemented in Austria?
Lawmakers are still hesitant to establish English as a court language. The implementation could be feasible with a few amendments to the relevant laws, in particular the Civil Procedure Code. Austria's central location in the CEE region makes Vienna an ideal hub for international disputes.
In addition to establishing English as a court language, further steps would be necessary, such as revision of the high (uncapped!) court fees or settlement fees.
A glance at Germany shows that such approaches have already been successfully implemented or are at least on the horizon. The Hamburg Regional Court established English-language civil and commercial chambers already back in 2018. On 16 August 2023, the German Federal Government passed a draft bill on establishing separate "Commercial Courts" by introducing English as a court language in civil proceedings.
Introducing English as a second court language would level up international litigation in Austria. It could enhance accessibility, promote Austria as a serious contender forum for international disputes and attract global players. It would streamline legal processes and contribute to a more (cost-) efficient and inclusive judicial system. Also, it would make your (and our) lives so much easier. Join us in advocating for the introduction of English as a court language!
authors: Sara Khalil, Verena Schnittler