The Austrian Legal System and Laws: a Brief Overview
by Johannes Oehlboeck and Immanuel Gerstner
Johannes Oehlboeck received a law degree from the University of Vienna in 2001 and an LL.M. in 2002. He currently works as an associate at Gugerbauer & Partners, and specializes in Anti-Trust Law and IT-LAW (http://www.rechtsfreund.at). Johannes Oehlboeck is a member of the board of it-law.at.
Immanuel Gerstner holds a law degree from the University of Salzburg (2000), a PhD in law (2001), and an LL.M. from the New York University School of Law (2002). He currently works as an associate at CMS Reich-Rohrwig Hainz, and specializes in Corporate Law, M & A and International Arbitration. Immanuel Gerstner is admitted to the Bar of New York.
Read the Update!
Table of Contents
2.3. Private Law
2.4. Criminal Law
3.1.2 Further Online Resources
3.3.3 Legal Publishers
Austria lies in the heart of Europe, right between Western Europe and the Central-Eastern Europe region. It has a population of just over 8 million people, and the capital city is Vienna.
Austria is a democratic, federal republic. Immediately after World War II, on 1 May 1945, Austria’s Constitution of 1920 as amended in 1929, which was notably drafted by Professor Hans Kelsen, was re-enacted. However, it took ten more years until Austria’s full sovereignty was re-established by the conclusion of a state treaty on 15 May 1955 between Austria and the Allies, France, UK, USA and USSR. In the same year Austria declared its permanent neutrality by constitutional law. On 1 January 1995, Austria joined the European Union, and also became a member of the European Currency Union.
The Austrian Constitution establishes Austria as a representative, or indirect, democracy with a two chamber parliamentary system, in which the separation of powers principle is recognized. Most legislative power lies with the Nationalrat (National Assembly), which is elected by general federal elections every fourth year. On the other hand the members of the second chamber, the Bundesrat (Federal Assembly), are nominated by the diets of the nine autonomous Provinces (Länder). The Federal Assembly represents the interests of the Federal Provinces.
Austria’s formal head of state is the “Bundespraesident” (Federal President), who is directly elected by the populace. The country’s government is headed by the “Bundeskanzler” (Federal Chancellor), in whom most political power is vested. Federal legislation is first signed by the Federal President and then countersigned by the Federal Chancellor.
The civil rights of the citizens were first guaranteed in 1867. These rights were adopted and incorporated into the present Constitution, along with the rights provided by the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of November 4, 1950, which was ratified by Austria in 1958.
Constitutional law is given a higher status by virtue of the fact that it is harder to amend. An amendment to a national constitutional provision requires a two thirds majority in parliament, with at least half of the members present and voting. The provision thereby adopted is then known as a “Constitutional Law” or “Constitutional Regulation”. By contrast, to pass a valid motion in parliament relating to a law that is not constitutional in nature, a simple majority of votes is required, with one third of parliamentary members present and voting.
The highest ranking laws in the Austrian legal hierarchy are outlined in the “Fundamental Principles” of the Austrian national constitution. The Fundamental Principles are the following: the democratic principle; the principle of the separation of powers; the principle of the rule of law; the republican principle; and the liberal principle. As a whole, these leading principles form the basic constitutional legal system. Particular constitutional weight is thus accorded to these principles, so that any “complete alteration” to the national constitution can only take place if first agreed by the Austrian people in a referendum. A “complete alteration” to the constitution takes place when the constitution is so radically amended that either one of the leading principles needs to be removed, or the relationship of the principles to each other becomes essentially altered.
Austria’s entry into the EU on January 1 1995 required a “complete alteration” to the national constitution. Austrian constitutional law was thus joined with EU law as the most fundamental source of law (Dual-constitution). The general view is that EU law now takes precedence over domestic Austrian law and the national constitution, but is subordinate to the fundamental principles of the constitution.
Corresponding to national constitutional law and national law is regional constitutional law and regional laws relating to each of the nine Austrian federal regions. Regional constitutional law is subordinate to national constitutional law and must not conflict with national constitutional law. However, as a matter of convention, national laws that are not constitutional in nature take no priority over regional laws.
Private law is divided in to general private law applicable to all persons, and specialised forms of civil law, which is applicable only to certain categories, such as commercial law for businessmen or employment law for employers and employees. The major part of what is considered general private law is regulated in a comprehensive private law code called the Allgemeine Buergerliche Gesetzbuch (ABGB). Although case law is not legally binding it does have decisive persuasive authority.
A number of fundamental principles, all of which originate from Roman Law, form the basis of Austrian Private law. The principle of Privatautonomie (individual freedom) is the freedom to pursue legal relations in the form and manner determined by the parties. Said principle is expressed more precisely in the principle of contractual and testamentary freedom (Vertragsfreiheit) which includes the freedom (i) over the form of the contract, (ii) the content of the contract, and (iii) to dissolve a contract. A further fundamental principle is the principle of consensus (Konsensprinzip), which provides that any change in the legal position can only be achieved by consent. Any contract infringing good mores will be deemed void according to Section 879 ABGB. Good faith is protected by Section 367 allowing those in good faith to acquire from bad faith or non-entitled possessors.
Legal Capacity - Any natural or legal person is able to bear legal rights and obligations. Different forms of legal persons are recognized, such as a corporation or a trust or certain legal persons, under public law. As far as natural persons are concerned, contractual capacity is limited according to age and certain other individual circumstances.
Contracts - To establish a valid and binding contract between parties, the following prerequisites must be satisfied: contractual capacity, consensus of the parties, intention, possible and acceptable content, and if required the observation of formal requirements. A defect in any one of these elements will either render the contract void or give rise to a right to rescind the contract. In case of a party’s insufficient performance the non-breaching party’s remedies vary from price reduction to – e.g. if the defect cannot be corrected and essential to the contract – collection of the goods and rescission.
Torts - The ABGB provides a uniform system applying to both contractual and tortious damages. According to Sections 1293 et seq. ABGB that person that caused damages to another person or property shall be liable to compensate this damage to the extent of restoring the previous position of the other party if: (i) the damages would not have occurred but for the party’s conduct or omission; (ii) that conduct or omission was unlawful and fault on the part of the person causing the damages is established.
Business Associations - A general division between the types of business associations that can be drawn are partnerships and corporations. The main distinction between the two types is that the latter confers only limited liability on its members. Austrian law knows two types of corporations: (i) Aktiengesellschaft” (joint stock corporation) and (ii) Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung (limited liability company). An Aktiengesellschaft can be a private or a public company. It is managed by a management board (Vorstand), which is appointed and supervised by a supervisory board (Aufsichtsrat). The corporate form of a limited liability company is simpler and more widely used. Only large limited liability companies require a supervisory board. All corporations must be registered in the Commercial Register, which provides publicly available information about every corporation. Foreign corporations may establish branch offices in Austria, which must also be registered in the Commercial Register.
Substantive criminal law (i.e. those provisions concerned with the crimes themselves rather than the criminal process) is the branch of public law that defines criminal acts and sets out the respective criminal penalties. Criminal law is a wide concept, and it includes as a separate sub-category, the so-called “non-criminal” penal law (concerned with administrative crimes and disciplinary penalties). Thus, within the concept of criminal law, one differentiates between judicial criminal law and administrative criminal law depending on whether the criminal law is to be enforced by the courts or by the administrative authorities. The law is, thus, determined by the relevant body. The law must, however, comply with the provisions of the constitutional laws which allocate the criminal justice to the courts.
The requirements of culpability correspond to an arbitrary (a reflex movement would for example not be seen as arbitrary), factual (it must be a standard fact), unlawful and culpable (the act must be linked to the offender; he must have some responsibility for it) behavior which can be threatened by legal sanctions. An act can only fulfill the requirements of culpability if it satisfies all the characteristics of a type of crime as provided for by the law (“no punishment without a lawful justification”). The elements of a crime (offences: tort and crime) are regulated either by the Austrian Criminal Law (StGB) or in one of the instruments of secondary legislation.
The criminal procedural provisions regulate the procedure for determining whether a suspect has committed a crime and whether, as a result, a sanction should be imposed on him. These provisions are contained in the Austrian Criminal Procedure Law (StPO) and in secondary legislation. The provisions regarding the preliminary criminal proceedings on the imposition of a remand in custody or on the carrying out of an asset seizure, house search or telephone surveillance are also regulated there.
The Fair trial principle and the principle of the presumption of innocence (the accused remains innocent until his guilt is proven) are guarantied; the accused must be acquitted if some doubts persist due to some arguments indicating that he is guilty and others indicating the opposite (Principle in dubio pro reo).
All jurisdictions in Austria proceed from the Federal Republic. Verdicts and findings are proclaimed and published in the name of the Republic. Austrian Law draws a basic distinction between two principal jurisdictions: (i) tribunals and courts concerned with public law matters, and (ii) the courts of ordinary jurisdiction.
Constitutional Court (Verfassungsgerichtshof (VfGH) - Its task is to protect the civil rights of the citizens and to ensure that legislation is in conformity with the Austrian Constitution. Citizens may apply to the Constitutional Courts if acts of a public authority directly violated any of their personal rights granted by the Constitution. The Constitutional Court also adjudicates conflicts: (i) in the legislative competences between the federation and the federal provinces; (ii) between courts of ordinary jurisdiction and administrative authorities and/or courts of public jurisdiction; (iii) between itself and the Admistrative Court (Verwaltungsgerihtshof (VwGH)).
Administrative Courts - A variety of administrative tribunal and appeals court exists to review the decisions and actions of the administrative authorities. The administrative tribunals are not strictly courts; however, proceedings before such tribunals fulfill the fair trial requirement of Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). The most important of these tribunals is the Independent Administrative Tribunal (Unabhaengiger Verwaltungssenat (UVS)). The only administrative court in Austria is the Verwaltungsgerichtshof. It reviews the decisions and the exercise of power of the entire public administration. The administrative tribunals can be subject to judicial determination.
The courts of ordinary jurisdiction deal with all matters outside the competence of the public law courts, i.e. matters of private law, criminal law, as well as aspects of competition law.
Courts of first instance - Depending on the facts of the case, such as the amount claimed in civil cases or the type of offense in criminal cases, the case falls within the jurisdiction of either a District Court (Bezirksgericht) or a Regional Court in the first instance. If the first instance court is a District Court, decisions are taken by a single judge. In civil cases also before Regional Courts, decisions are for the most part taken by a single judge. On the other hand, the composition of the Regional Court in criminal matters differs according to the nature of the proceedings and the possible penalty. It may also be constituted as a Schoeffengericht with two professional and two lay judges, or a Schwurgericht with three professional judges and a jury of eight people.
Courts of second instance - In civil matters where the case was initially brought before a District Court, an appeal must be made to a Regional Court. Where a Regional Court already decided in the first instance, decisions must be appealed before a Province Court (Oberlandesgericht). On the other hand, in criminal matters, the Province Courts are always the second instance courts.
Supreme Court - The Supreme Court (Oberster Gerichtshof (OGH)) is the highest court in civil and criminal cases. It has 6 Senates for criminal cases, 10 for civil cases and 2 additional for labour cases and social cases. The Supreme Court hears cases at last instance only. The composition of respective Senates depends on the importance of the matter brought before the Supreme Court. In criminal cases the Supreme Court will only hear appeals for nullity against a guilty verdict of a Schoeffengericht or a Schwurgericht or an appeal against the penalty.
The Legal Information System of the Republic of Austria (RIS) is a computer-assisted information system on Austrian law, which is coordinated and operated by the Austrian Federal Chancellery. Its beginnings date back to 1983 when the essential features of the system were designed. After federal legislation had been incorporated into the system, decisions of the supreme courts started to be included. A section of the Legal Information System offers a selection of important Austrian laws in English translation.
The Legal Information System contains the following databases: Federal Law Gazette (Bundesgesetzblatt), Draft bill, Government bill, Federal law, State Law Gazette, Municipal law, European Community Law, Case-law documentations, Instruction edicts, Instruction edicts of the Federal Ministry of Justice, and Austrian laws in English.
The federal law database covers 99% of Austrian federal law. Amendments are incorporated as soon as they are promulgated so that the database always contains the applicable version of a document (one document: 1 section or 1 article or 1 annex). In addition to the applicable version, many norms also offer the opportunity to access previous versions, making it possible for the user to reconstruct the development of the regulation.
As a result of the cooperation with the office of the State (regional) government, the State Law Gazette contains all issues of the State Law Gazette in their original versions of the Austrian Provinces. The Municipal law database contains the laws of some Austrian municipalities. The database also contains selected municipal laws of Austrian Provinces.
The European Community Law Database (CELEX) contains the European Community law. The Austrian Federal Chancellery receives the data from The Office for Official Publications of the European Communities. The CELEX database is made up of the following sections: treaties, external relations, secondary legislation, complementary legislation, preparatory works, case law, national measures, parliamentary questions, consolidated texts (at present time there are no documents available), official journals (C-series), and EFTA documents.
Case-law is now a third key component of the Legal Information System. The databases contain both the legal principles and the full text of the rulings. The database contains the case-law of the Constitutional Court (nearly all rulings since 1980), the Administrative Court (comprises nearly all its decisions since 1990; substantial rulings are also available from previous years), of the Supreme Court (decisions of civil and criminal law), the Independent Administrative Tribunals (selected rulings since 1991), the Independent Federal Asylum Board (selected rulings since 1998), the Environmental Senate, the Procurement Review Authorities (rulings of the Federal Public Procurement Review Authority, the Federal Public Procurement Arbitration Body since 1997 and the Procurement Review Authorities of Salzburg and Vienna since 2004), the Data Protection Commission, the Federal Communications Board, the Appeals Tribunal and Supreme Disciplinary Commission (case-law on disciplinary matters and matters pertaining to employee transfers in the Federal Government since 1999) and the Supervisory Tribunal for Employees' Representation (case law on matters of employees' representation).
Austrian Business Law
Heller Karl / Löber Heinz / Georg Bahn / Hubner / Horvath
Legal, Accounting and Tax Aspects of Business in Austria - Manz Verlag
Labour Law and Industrial Relations in Austria
Strasser Rudolf – Manz Verlag
1992 , 208 Pages, ISBN: 3214056808
Company Law & Accounting in Austria
Andrewitch / Hammerl / McFerren / Prachner / Simon
A translation of the related provisions of the Commercial Code, etc.
Manz Verlag, 1995, 316 Pages, ISBN: 3214002163
Austrian Labour Law
Goldmann Henry / Komar Andrea / Unterweger Josef
Linde, 1999, 175 Pages, ISBN: 3851228863
European Tort Law 2002
Koziol Helmut / Steininger Barbara
Tort and Insurance Law Yearbook
Springer-Verlag, 2003 , 596 pages, ISBN: 3211004866
Legal English: German/English - English/German
Manz Verlag, 2005 , 473 pages, ISBN: 3214002872 ,
The Austrian Banking Act
Special Issue for the Österreichische Nationalbank
Manz Verlag, 2002, 278 Pages, ISBN: 3214002341
The Austrian Privatstiftung
Bank Privat AG, 2002, firstname.lastname@example.org
Games of Chance in the EU and in Austria
Law - Internet - Social Aspects
Linde, 2002 ,168 Pages, ISBN: 3707303772
The Austrian Legal System
Manz Verlag, 2003 , 327 Pages, ISBN: 3214002899