Civil law – also known as private law – regulates the legal relationships of people (natural persons) and legal persons (e.g. an Austrian Private Company limited by Shares/GmbH) among one another. The parties (Plaintiff or Defendant) confront one another in civil proceedings on the same level (in contrast to the administration).
The governing law regulating civil law matters, in Austria, the Austrian Civil Code (ABGB). This law was already enacted in 1811, and has meanwhile been reformed and adapted frequently. Principal elements in this law include:
- Ownership law and the law of possession
- Contract law
- Tort law
- Inheritance law
- Family law
There are, furthermore, many other special laws, such as the Marriage Act (EheG), which regulates marriage law. There are, moreover, also laws which include target group-specific peculiarities. The Consumer Protection Act (KSchG), for example, regulates the relations between consumers, as well as companies, granting the consumer more in-depth protection than the ABGB. Residential law is regulated in the Austrian Tenancy Act (MRG), Austrian Condominium Freehold Act (WEG) and the Austrian Non-Profit Housing Act (WGG).
The law on civil procedure lays down the course of judicial proceedings within the scope of civil law. Depending upon the field of application, various different laws may lay down the course of the civil proceedings. The most important regulations include, inter alia, the Austrian Code on Civil Procedure (ZPO), the Non-Contentious Proceedings Act (AußStrG), the Enforcement Regulations (EO), and the Insolvency Code (IO).
In civil proceedings, at least one litigant seeks legal protection against another litigant (who is on equal terms with the former). Other than in criminal proceedings, the State does not act as prosecutor in civil proceedings. The parties can, however, themselves decide on filing an action, submitting evidence and ending the proceedings by way of a settlement.
The basic principles of civil proceedings are both laid down in the Austrian Constitution and in the European Convention on Human Rights, as follows:
- The oral and public nature of the hearing
- A legal hearing for both parties Each party needs to be given the opportunity to express itself in the proceedings.
- The proceedings begin with the action, and the parties can end them again, up to a judgment being pronounced, by way of a settlement or an amicable suspension agreement.
- The parties to the dispute supply the evidential material themselves. The Court may request additional evidence in the proceedings for the introduction of evidence. There is, however, no investigative instance, unlike in criminal proceedings.
The judges are independent in exercising their judicial office. Their independence is guaranteed by their being appointed permanently, not being allowed to be dismissed, and not being subject to relocation. They also do not need to accept any instructions. Through a fixed allocation of duties, it is ensured that the allocation of the individual legal cases to the respective judges cannot be influenced.