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 what you should know about the preliminary judicial inquiry, filing a complaint and the work of the police.

    Do I have to report sexual abuse?

    In Germany, there is no obligation to report sexual abuse – neither for private individuals nor for institutions.

    In Germany, there is no obligation to report sexual abuse – neither for private individuals nor for institutions.

    The "Round Table on Child Sexual Abuse" guidelines were developed for the latter. They are intended to forward suspicious institutional cases to the law enforcement authorities as quickly as possible. Certain narrowly defined cases are exempt from this – such as if the person affected does not wish this to happen. It is up to the institutions and associations whether they decide to adhere to the guidelines.

    Before filing a complaint, you should seek advice from a specialised advice and counselling centres for sexual violence. Legal questions are best discussed with lawyers who specialise in victims' rights. All these individuals are bound by professional secrecy and are not allowed to file criminal charges themselves. "Here" you can find specialised advice and counseling centres and lawyers near you.

    How and where can criminal charges be filed?

    Sexual abuse of children and adolescents is a criminal offence. It can be reported to any police station or to the public prosecutor's office.

    Sexual abuse of children and adolescents is a criminal offence. It can be reported to any police station or to the public prosecutor's office.

    It is advisable to make an appointment and file the complaint with the local police criminal investigation department for sexual offences. These specialist departments usually have specially trained staff who ensure that the interview is carried out in a child-appropriate way to ensure that the child suffers as little stress as possible. You can find the relevant contact points in the federal states here.

    Can I file a complaint anonymously?

    Yes, but this is generally not enough to convict the perpetrator.

    Yes, but this is generally not enough to convict the perpetrator.

    It is possible to file a complaint completely anonymously, for example, by withholding your phone number or sending an anonymous letter. However, for the investigating authorities this only serves as first evidence. To file a complaint and then be questioned as a witness, you have to give your personal details. This also includes your address.

    What can you do if you do not want to give your address? In certain cases, such as if giving your address could put you at risk, you can either give a different address as a so-called summonable address or the information can be redacted in the investigation file. If your address is redacted, the public prosecutor's office will store your details separately. The perpetrators and their defence lawyers will not have access to the address.

    What happens at the police station?

    If you are affected by a crime, the police will question you as a witness. During police questioning, you talk about what happened and what you yourself observed.

    If you are affected by a crime, the police will question you as a witness. During police questioning, you talk about what happened and what you yourself observed.

    It is very important to tell the truth, even if it is unpleasant. You must tell the truth even if you believe you may have done something wrong yourself or provoked the crime. The duty to tell the truth also means not withholding details. It doesn't matter if you don't remember everything. What is important is that you tell the investigating officers and later the court very clearly:

    • what you know exactly,
    • what you're not sure about,
    • what you don't know at all.

    In addition to questioning you, the police will also tell you what your rights as a victim are. This includes the possibility of being assisted by a psychosocial support counsel during the preliminary judicial inquiry and later in court. The police can also put you in touch with local victim support organisations and specialised advice and counselling centres. They are experienced in supporting and encouraging victims of violence and accompanying them during the proceedings.

    The "Opferfibel" publication of the Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection also offers more information.

    Do I have to testify?

    Witnesses must testify and may not refuse to do so. This is called witness duty ("Zeugenpflicht").

    Witnesses must testify and may not refuse to do so. This is called witness duty ("Zeugenpflicht").

    It also applies to crime victims. The duty to act as a witness does not apply if you have the right to refuse to give evidence ("Zeugnisverweigerungsrecht "). This right exists if the accused person is a relative. You do not have to be a direct relative. It also includes fiancés and in-laws.

    If you have already given evidence to the police and later decide to exercise your right to refuse to testify, any previous statements you have made may no longer be used from them onwards. This means that the public prosecutor's office, the police and the court must act as if the statement was never made. An exception exists if you have made your statement before a judge. In this case, the judge may be questioned about the statement you have already made.

    Can I be accompanied to the police questioning?

    You have the right to be accompanied to the questioning by a person you trust.

    You have the right to be accompanied to the questioning by a person you trust.

    This can also be a lawyer, especially if the lawyer specialises in victims' rights. You can also be accompanied by a psychosocial support counsel. An application can be filed with the court to be accompanied by a court-appointed lawyer and/or psychosocial support counsel during the proceedings. It is a good idea to file the application early – the relevant application form is available from the police. The police can also answer any questions you may have about this.

    Anyone who is a potential witness is unsuitable as a person of trust during the questioning. In addition, anyone who interferes with the outcome of an investigation may be excluded from the questioning. This may be the case for mothers and fathers. In addition, the presence of the parents at the police questioning could prevent the child from freely answering questions that it views as embarrassing or shameful. It may therefore be better for the child to be accompanied by another person close to the child.

    Can the testimony also be videotaped?

    The police questioning of witnesses can be video or voice recorded. This is especially important with underage witnesses to get a good overall impression of the situation.

    The police questioning of witnesses can be video or voice recorded. This is especially important with underage witnesses to get a good overall impression of the situation.

    In addition, the questioning during the preliminary judicial inquiry can also take place via video. This is in particular considered an option in the case of minors.

    The judicial questioning via video can in many cases replace further interrogation during the main trial later on. This is a great advantage because it may avoid children and adolescents having to appear in court. Everyone involved in the proceedings must have the opportunity to participate in the judicial questioning via video. A representative from the public prosecutor's office (usually also the person in charge of the preliminary judicial inquiry) and a minute-taker of the court have to be present. The accused person and their legal representative must also have the opportunity to take part. In the case of underage witnesses, the court usually orders a "separate questioning".

    In this case, the accused person and their legal representative are in a separate room. They can then follow the questioning on a screen. Only the child/adolescent and the person accompanying them will be in the interrogation room. The person accompanying them may be a psychosocial support counsel or a legal representative. The judge is also present. After the questioning, the data media on which the questioning is recorded as well as a transcript of the questioning are placed in the investigation file of the public prosecutor's office.

    You can find more information under "The main criminal trial" in the "How does the questioning in court work for witnesses?"“ section.

    What else happens during the investigation?

    What further investigations are necessary is determined by the police and the public prosecutor's office. This may be a medical examination to check for possible injuries or to secure traces.

    What further investigations are necessary is determined by the police and the public prosecutor's office. This may be a medical examination to check for possible injuries or to secure traces.

    There are violence protection outpatient clinics ("Gewaltschutzambulanzen") where victims can undergo free forensic medical examinations. This does not require the victim to have filed a criminal complaint with the police first. Such an examination and the documentation of the injuries sustained is particularly useful when it has not yet been decided whether to file criminal charges. It ensures that no evidence is lost if you decide to pursue criminal or civil proceedings at a later date.

    It is also important to point out that an examination outside the preliminary judicial inquiry is always voluntary and only takes place with the express consent of the person concerned or their legal guardian. Doctor-patient confidentiality applies in such cases too – including vis-à-vis the police and the courts. Unfortunately, there are currently only a few model projects in Germany that offer "anonymous" securing of evidence, i.e., without a complaint having first been filed. The Terre des Femmes website offers a list of places where "anonymous" securing of evidence is available free of charge.

    Further witnesses have to be questioned during the investigation. Attending doctors are also questioned. However, they may only release information if they have previously been exempt from their duty of confidentiality by the person themselves or their legal guardian. This means that the attending doctor must have been given permission to talk about it by the patient. The accused person is also usually summoned for questioning. The accused does not, however, see the police or the public prosecutor's office. The "Opferfibel" publication of the Federal Ministry of Justice contains further information about investigations.

    What happens to the accused person?

    According to the principle of presumption of innocence, an accused person is innocent until proven guilty.

    According to the principle of presumption of innocence, an accused person is innocent until proven guilty.

    The accused does not have to help the state to find the truth. This is why the accused has the right to remain silent during the proceedings and does not have to appear for questioning.

    A person may only be taken into custody before a conviction if there is a strong suspicion and a reason for the arrest. The latter is the case, for example, if there is a risk of absconding due to a lack of a fixed abode, if there is a risk of the accused influencing witnesses or if there is a risk of a repeat offence.

    What is a credibility assessment ("Glaubhaftigkeitsgutachten")?

    Sometimes the public prosecutor's office requests a credibility assessment during the preliminary judicial inquiry.

    Sometimes the public prosecutor's office requests a credibility assessment during the preliminary judicial inquiry.

    The assessment is carried out by a psychologist specialising in testimonies who provides their expert opinion on whether a statement is based on real or false memories. This helps the public prosecutor's office and the courts to find out what actually happened. It is not always possible to determine with complete certainty whether someone is telling the truth and the memory is based on an actual experience. Ultimately, what matters is whether the court is convinced that the testimony is true.

    What can I expect regarding the credibility assessment?

    Psychologists use a standard method to try to determine whether a statement is highly likely to be based on real memories.

    Psychologists use a standard method to try to determine whether a statement is highly likely to be based on real memories.

    For example, they look into how detailed the statement is, what stands out about it and to what extent the details stay the same or change when the statement is repeated. They also try to find out the situation in which the experience was first spoken about, the circumstances under which a complaint was filed and how the statement developed. If a child has already been questioned by several people, it is important to look into this closely to be able to assess the extent to which the statement is nevertheless usable or not reliable for the court.

    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.

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