Law

Victims and their families often have many questions when it comes to the law. We provide you with information and show you where you can find support.

What legal options do I have?

Many victims or their family members initially find it difficult to understand the many legal rules and formalities involved.

Many wonder if they need to press charges and what that means for them. It is therefore a good idea to seek advice first. At the advice session you can discuss what your aim is and what legal steps you can take to achieve it. What steps do you want to take? What can you expect to happen? What are you entitled to vis-à-vis the perpetrator? How long does a lawsuit take? Getting legal advice will help you make a well-informed decision on how to proceed.

Where can I get legal advice?

Sie können Angebote zur kostenlosen Rechtsberatung in Anspruch nehmen, oder sich an Anwält:innen wenden.

Advice and counselling centres/h4>

There are advice and counselling centres all over Germany - some also offer free legal advice or can recommend suitable lawyers. For many victims and their families they are the first point of contact. Here you can find an advice and counselling centre near you.
To the advice and counseling centers

Law firms

Lawyers specialise in different legal areas such as criminal law, civil law or social law. Depending on your goal, whether you want to file criminal charges or claim damages or victim compensation, it makes sense to look for a lawyer who is a specialist in the relevant area.

There are lawyers who specialise in representing clients who have been victims of crime. However, criminal lawyers generally also and above all represent individuals who have been accused of a crime. Lawyers for victims' rights specialise in victim compensation law or protection against violence, usually as specialists in social and/or family law, and do not represent the plaintiffs in criminal proceedings. You should therefore always ask the lawyer what they specialise in and what they are experienced in.

You can find out whether they have experience in providing legal advice on the subject of sexual abuse on the lawyer's website or by calling them. Some lawyers work together with advice and counselling centres or victims' associations such as "Weisser Ring e.V." and specifically specialise in providing legal support to victims in criminal proceedings.

The most important thing when it comes to choosing a lawyer is that, when you talk to them, you feel well looked after and are given good advice. A phone call allows you to gain a first impression. You can ask a person you trust to accompany you if you'd rather not go alone. Many lawyers offer a free first consultation. The "Weisser Ring e. V." organisation issues so-called help cheques ("Hilfeschecks") for a first legal consultation. You can find a lawyer near you here.
To Lawyers 

In the „Stories that inspire courage“ das Interview mit Petra Ladenburger, section you can read an interview with Petra Ladenburger, a lawyer who has been representing victims of sexualised violence for almost 30 years.

When is a sexual act a criminal offence?

Sexual activities with children, i.e., with minors under the age of 14, are always a criminal offence. That is the case even if the child supposedly gave consent or initiated the sexual act.

This includes the following:

  • A person kisses a child using the tongue.
  • A person performs sexual acts on the child's body.
  • A person gets a child to sexually gratify them.
  • A person forces a child to perform a sexual act on themselves.
  • A person penetrates a child's body, for example, the vagina, buttocks or mouth. This includes penetration with the penis, but also with a finger or an object. Necessary medical examinations are not included.

Penetrating a child's body is a very serious form of sexual abuse. However, acts that do not directly involve the child's body can also constitute sexual abuse:

  • A person attempts to arouse sexual interest in a child through messages or conversations.
  • A person masturbates in front of a child.
  • A person shows a child pictures or videos of sexual acts.

Sexual abuse can also be committed through digital media. You can find out what that includes here.

What is the situation regarding adolescents from the age of 14?

Sexual acts with minors from the age of 14 are only a criminal offence under certain circumstances.

For example, because the perpetrator was tasked with protecting the minor entrusted to them. Such custodial relationships exist, for example, in the education sector or the care sector (Section 174 of the Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch)). It includes people who work as probation officers, teachers and care home managers.

Protecting adolescents from sexual abuse is also governed by Section 182 of the Criminal Code. According to this provision, it is a criminal offence to take advantage of a young person in distress, for example, if the young person has run away from home, or in the case of people over 18, to pay money for the sexual act. Furthermore, a person over the age of 21 commits a criminal offence if they engage in sexual activity with an adolescent under the age of 16 if the victim is incapable of sexual self-determination towards themselves. This means that the person concerned is not in a position vis-à-vis the perpetrator to fully understand what the sexual activity is about and is therefore unable to give consent. The perpetrator must recognise and take advantage of this.

What is the difference between criminal and civil law?

In criminal law, the state, represented by the police and the public prosecutor's office, conducts a judicial inquiry against an offender.

In civil law, the person concerned can take action against the offender themselves. If there is sufficient evidence that a crime was committed, the prosecution brings charges and the court sentences the perpetrator. In a criminal proceeding, the person concerned is above all a witness.

While the purpose of criminal law is to punish a guilty person, the purpose of civil law is to enforce claims against someone, for example, for damages or compensation for pain and suffering. The person concerned is not a witness here, but rather one of the parties in a trial. This means that they can take action against the perpetrator themselves, wherever possible with legal representation, such as a lawyer, and sue the perpetrator.

How does a civil lawsuit work?

A civil lawsuit is very different from a criminal lawsuit. The police and the public prosecutor's office do not carry out any investigations.

You yourself gather the necessary evidence. The beginning of a civil lawsuit is usually the so-called written preliminary proceeding ("schriftliches Vorverfahren"). It prepares the main appointment.
Here, the plaintiff first states the claim (for example, for payment of compensation for pain and suffering) and names the evidence (for example, witnesses, medical reports, photographs) on which they base the claim. The opposing party then responds, attempting to invalidate the evidence, for example, by naming its own witnesses. This written preliminary proceeding can take several months until it gets to trial.

In a civil case, you need to comply with many formalities and gather all the evidence yourself. This is why it is important to have the support of a lawyer. It makes sense to seek in-depth advice before filing a lawsuit. If you are on a low income, you can apply for a so-called "Beratungsschein" (advice voucher) with your district court. If your application is successful, the state will cover the costs of out-of-court legal advice. If the case goes to court, you can apply for legal aid. This covers the costs of a court trial – including court costs and the costs for your own lawyer. You apply for legal aid with the competent court.

    When does an offence become statute-barred?

    This depends on whether we are talking about criminal law and civil law. In criminal law, the harsher the potential punishment of an offence, the longer the statute of limitations.

    For crimes such as child sexual abuse, statutes of limitations range from 5 to 20 years, and 30 years for abuse resulting in death.
    In criminal law the statute of limitations generally runs from the date on which the most recent offence ended. However, there is a special rule for sexual offences. Here, the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the victim reaches the age of 30. However, these are only guidelines: The legally binding decision is made by the respective public prosecutor's office or the criminal court.

    In the case of civil claims for damages for the intentional violation of the right to sexual self-determination and for intentional injury to life, body, health and freedom, the statute of limitations is 30 years.
    If you want to make a civil claim against a perpetrator, it may help to seek advice from a specialist lawyer. You can find a lawyer near you under "Local help".

    To lawyers

    How long does a lawsuit take?

    Criminal proceedings can be very time-consuming. Unfortunately, this means that there are often several months, even years in some cases, between reporting an offence and a verdict.

    This is especially true if the acts in question were committed a long time ago, or if there are many witnesses. In view of this, it makes sense to seek legal and/or psychosocial support at an early stage and to seek advice before filing charges.

    In civil law the actual trial usually involves fewer appointments than in criminal law. However, this does not mean that the proceedings are necessarily over more quickly. One reason for this is that civil proceedings often get suspended if a criminal proceeding is underway at the same time. In such cases, the civil proceeding is continued once the criminal proceeding is concluded.

    In addition, a so-called written preliminary proceeding ("schriftliches Vorverfahren") is usually carried out, which can take several months. During such a proceeding, the plaintiff's side explains to the court what their claim is based on and presents the evidence. The defendant's side, on the other hand, tries to invalidate this evidence and explains, for example, why there is no entitlement for damages for pain and suffering.

    What is a preliminary judicial inquiry? ?

    Every criminal lawsuit starts with a preliminary judicial inquiry or a preliminary proceeding. The public prosecutor's office initiates this if it believes there are indications that a crime has been committed.

    This is called initial suspicion ("Anfangsverdacht"). An initial suspicion may exist because someone files a criminal complaint or if the public prosecutor's office or the police learn of a possible criminal offence in another way, such as through a tip-off.

    During the preliminary judicial inquiry, the public prosecutor's office tries to establish what actually happened. The police supports the public prosecutor's office in this, such as by questioning witnesses. At the end of the preliminary judicial inquiry, the public prosecutor's office, based on the established facts, decides whether to bring charges or close the case.

    Find out more about filing a complaint, making a statement and the work of the police during the preliminary judicial inquiry.
    To preliminary judicial inquiry
     

    When will charges be pressed?

    If the public prosecutor's office believes that the investigation provided sufficient evidence to convict the accused person in court, it will press charges.

    The court then decides whether to open the so-called main proceeding ("Hauptverfahren"). A date will be set, and the defendant, victim and witnesses are summoned.

    If the evidence is found to be insufficient, the public prosecutor's office will stop the proceeding against the accused person. However, the injured person can file an appeal against the decision and perhaps even initiate a so-called legal action enforcement procedure ("Klageerzwingungsverfahren") at a later date.

    What support is available during the procedure?

    Since 2017, people affected by sexual violence have been entitled to professional counselling and support throughout the lawsuit.

    This psychosocial support is provided in the form of an appointed counsel ("Beiordnung"). The application for it is made to the court. This can also be done during the preliminary judicial inquiry.

    The psychosocial support counsel provides information, support and advice during the preliminary judicial inquiry and later during and after the main trial. Such professional support can be helpful, because for many people legal proceedings are very stressful. However, it is not a substitute for legal advice from lawyers. Our database lists psychosocial support counsels in your federal state.
    To support counsels

    In addition, many local advice and counselling centres have staff who also accompany other witnesses to court. An overview of the rights of injured and aggrieved parties in criminal proceedings is provided by the "Opferfibel" publication of the Federal Ministry of Justice.

    What are criminal trials?

    During a main criminal trial, the court decides on the guilt of the accused person.

    The witnesses, as well as the investigating police officers, are questioned again during a hearing of evidence. Expert witnesses, such as forensic experts or psychologists, may also be heard. If, at the end of the trial, the court is convinced that the accused person did commit the crime, the court sentences the person. If, even after the evidence has been taken, doubts remain as to the guilt or innocence of the accused, the person is acquitted.

    Find out more about criminal trials and how they work. To main criminal trial

    What is incidental action?

    For victims of serious crimes, which specifically includes all sexual offences, there is the possibility of incidental action.

    In a criminal proceeding, you can act as an additional plaintiff alongside the public prosecutor's office and thus have influence on the proceedings. Incidental actions allow you to actively participate in the proceeding and be awarded additional rights.

    This allows you to inspect files, ask questions of the other parties involved and object to a judge or an expert witness due to partiality. You can file motions for evidence, make statements and, at the end of the trial, make a so-called plea. If the accused person is acquitted, you can take legal action against the decision. However, it is not possible to contest the severity of the penalty itself.

    Find out more about incidental actions.

    To incidental actions

    More information

    If you would like more in-depth information, please follow these links:

    Stories that inspire courage

    Interview | Law

    The developments I observe in many of the victims and survivors are very encouraging and motivating. Often they can find their old self again during this long process.

    Petra Ladenburger
    Lawyer

    To the interview
    [Translate to Englisch:] Porträtfoto Petra Ladenburger
    Interview | Betroffene

    Being sexually abused by a woman was extremely damaging to my masculinity. I felt very conflicted for many years. It was really tough for me. It took me a long time to reconcile these two sides.

    Nicolas Haaf

    Member of the Council of Victims and Survivors

    To the interview
    [Translate to Englisch:] Porträtfoto Nicolas Haaf
    Interview | Counselling

    Such a sensitive and personal topic always needs courage. But I do believe that making a call helps. It is a first step, a first "mustering up the courage". And that alone often makes all subsequent steps much easier.

    Tanja von Bodelschwingh

    Counsellor at the Sexual Abuse Help Line

    To the interview
    [Translate to Englisch:] Porträtfoto Tanja von Bodelschwingh
    Interview | Dealing with Child Sexual Abuse

    We want to learn from these stories. That is the central element of coming to terms with what happened: Looking back should form the basis of learning for the sake of today and for the future.

    Barbara Kavemann

    Mitglied bei der Unabhängigen Kommission zur Aufarbeitung sexuellen Kindesmissbrauchs

    To the Interview
    [Translate to Englisch:] Porträtfoto Barbara Kavemann
    Interview | Self-help

    In our self-help group, men can show their weaknesses and are not laughed at, but are respected. That alone is an experience: I don't have to play the tough guy, I can be seen to be vulnerable.

    Max Ciolek

    Member of the Council of Victims and Survivors

    To the interview
    [Translate to Englisch:] Porträtfoto Max Ciolek
    Interview | People with disabilities

    In acute crisis situations in particular, it greatly helps to seek advice from outside and not just stay in your own circle. We look at everything from an independent viewpoint and can help people view the situation neutrally

    Pia Witthöft

    Head of the "Mutstelle" Counselling Centre

    To the interview
    [Translate to Englisch:] Porträtfoto Pia Witthöft

    Sexual Abuse – we support you if you are looking for help and information.

    anonymously, free of charge and across Germany

    Give us a call – even if you're unsure

    Talk to the advisors of the Sexual Abuse Help Line. Your call is anonymous and free of charge.

    0800 22 55 530

    Telephone hours:

    Mon, Wed, Fri: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
    Tues, Thurs: 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.

    Send us a message

    – securely and confidentially

    The Sexual Abuse Help Line also offers advice by email. By registering, the advice service remains confidential.