After the bankruptcy of the Aschheim scandal company Wirecard, the former boss and some high-ranking employees now have to answer to the Munich district court. A hundred process days are scheduled for the mammoth process. They are also on the agenda of two lay judges who represent the people on the bench. “And two substitute lay judges have been there from the start,” says Alfons Kuhn, who has been an honorary lay judge at the Munich Regional Court since 2018. The 71-year-old Haarer is not involved in the Wirecard process himself, but he knows from his own experience that the lay judges, like the professional judges, have to take part in all sessions of a process. Otherwise a process has burst and has to be started all over again.
In Bavaria there are around 4,700 honorary judges in the criminal justice system. You have the same rights and duties as a professional judge, so you decide what is right and what is wrong. That requires a sense of responsibility, courage and steadfastness, says Kuhn, emphasizing: “I have to get all the information I need to be able to make a judgment with a clear conscience.” The judges worked very differently, some explained the background or legal subtleties, others less so.
“As a lay judge, you sometimes have to bang on the table, for example when the two judges talk more to each other in a big hearing, instead of involving us lay judges and explaining connections to us,” says the 71-year-old emphatically. You can feel how important it is to him. He is therefore involved in the board of the Bavarian state association of the German Association of Aldermen (DVS) and would like to help find candidates for the next five-year term of office of the Aldermen and Youth Judges, which begins on January 1, 2024.
“The negotiations are very different,” he says. Sometimes it’s a big criminal case like Wirecard, sometimes an appeal lasting just one hour. As a lay judge, he was not allowed to name any details and, above all, any considerations from the judge’s room. During the trial, you shouldn’t let yourself be influenced by emotions such as affection or dislike for the accused, external appearances or events in the courtroom, and facial expressions and gestures shouldn’t reveal what you’re thinking.
This is not always easy, with some defendants staring at judges without their robes to unsettle them, or trying to win them over in other ways. Lay judges are warned about this at a voluntary introductory event, but they do not receive detailed training. Kuhn and the DVS have been criticizing this for years. The jury office is such a responsible activity that the preparation must include more than a detailed lecture and a visit to a prison.
You don’t need to have any legal knowledge or work through mountains of files to be a lay judge. Rather, life experience and common sense, public spirit and sound judgment are required. Before the hearing begins, the presiding judge briefly informs the lay judges about the case, about which they may ask questions during the hearing.
The trained industrial engineer has not yet faced a quadruple murderer, but he has faced people accused of sexual abuse. That made him think a lot. From another case he learned not to judge before all the facts are on the table: a man had been convicted at the district court of drunkenness and hit and run at the wheel of an e-scooter and appealed to the district court. For the judge, the record seemed clear and she recommended that the man refrain from appealing. But he wasn’t deterred. During the renegotiation, things came to light that had not been mentioned at all at the district court. “These new findings could be classified as conclusive, and the accused was acquitted,” says Kuhn. He is not allowed to give details.
The lay faithful can overrule the professional judge if they are convinced of the innocence of the accused
The case showed Kuhn how much responsibility lay judges have, who sit in pairs on the bench next to one or more professional judges at district and regional courts and get an idea of the facts and the accused during the course of the process. After all, they help decide whether someone is found guilty and what punishment is appropriate. That can also mean putting someone behind bars. But also to overrule professional judges and prevent it because one is convinced of the innocence of an accused.
Currently, candidates for the next term of office of the lay judges and youth lay judges are being sought nationwide. Anyone who is elected must accept the office and must be released by the employer for negotiations. As a German citizen who is between 25 and 69 years old when taking office and has no criminal record, you can apply in writing to your municipality of residence to be a lay judge. The deadlines for this vary and are announced by the municipalities. As a youth jury, you must also have qualifications and experience in youth education and register with the youth welfare office of the district by April 24th. Citizens of Unterschleißheim and Garching can apply to their city for both offices until the middle of March and the end of March respectively.
The German Association of Aldermen (DVS), in cooperation with the adult education centers throughout Bavaria, provides information about the Alderman’s Office, in the district of Munich on Thursday, February 9th, at the Taufkirchen adult education center, Ahornring 121, room 3.1, with Heiko Tammena and on Monday, March 6th March, in the Pullach community center, Heilmannstraße 2, club room, with Marc Baumann. Start is at 7 p.m. each day. More information is available at www.schoeffen-bayern.de and under www.landkreis-muenchen.de with the search term “Jugendschöffe”.