UPDATE: A Brief Overview of the Austrian Legal Information System and Laws

By Helmut Weichsel

Helmut Weichsel holds a Ph.D. of law from the University of Vienna (2017). He is working for the IT Department of the Federal Ministry for Digital and Economic Affairs and is responsible for the Legal Information System of the Republic of Austria (RIS). He is working at the national as well as the international level.

Published July/August 2021

(Previously updated by Johannes Öhlböck and Immanuel Gerstner in March/April 2009; by Johannes Öhlböck in October 2012; by Brigitte Barotanyi in March 2014 and in January 2017)

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1. Introduction

Austria lies in the heart of Europe, right between Western Europe and the Central-Eastern Europe region. It has a population of just over eight million people, and its capital city is Vienna. Austria is a democratic, federal republic comprising nine provinces: Vienna, Upper Austria, Lower Austria, Styria, Carinthia, Salzburg, Tyrol, Vorarlberg, and Burgenland. Each of the nine provinces is administered by its own government. The provinces are headed by a governor who is elected through the province’s legislature.

Immediately after World War II, on May 1, 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 May 15, 1955 between Austria and the Allies, France, the UK, USA, and USSR. In the same year, Austria declared its permanent neutrality by constitutional law and became a member of the United Nations. On January 1, 1995, Austria joined the European Union and also became a member of the European Currency Union.

The Austrian legal system is based on the civil law tradition and has its origin in Roman law. As shown below, Austria’s law consists of public law, private law, and criminal law.

2. Public Law: Constitutional Law

2.1. Overview

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 first chamber the Nationalrat (National Assembly), which is elected by general federal elections every five years. On the other hand, 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.

For a bill to become a federal law, it must be resolved upon by the National Assembly. Bills that are passed are sent to the Federal Assembly for corroboration. The bill succeeds if the Federal Assembly either approves the bill or does not react for eight weeks. Even so, the Federal Assembly cannot effectively prevent the adoption of legislation by vetoing a bill, as the National Assembly can simply force a bill into law by passing it again. However, for bills curtailing the constitutional rights of Austria's member states, bills concerning changes in the Federal Assembly’s rank, treaties that fall within the provinces’ sphere of action, and federal principle laws in which a time limit of less than six months or more than a year is set for the legislation to be implemented, the Federal Assembly’s approval is mandatory.

Austria's formal head of state is the Bundespraesident (federal president), who is directly elected by the populace once every six years and is limited to two consecutive terms of office. The Federal President appoints the Bundeskanzler (federal chancellor) as well as the other members of the federal government. Besides the president, the federal government is the highest administrative body. The country's government is headed by the federal chancellor, in whom most political power is vested. Federal legislation is first signed by the president and then countersigned by the chancellor. The government can be removed from office by either a presidential decree or by vote of no confidence by the National Assembly.

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.

2.2. Legislation / Hierarchy of Legal Sources

Constitutional law is given a higher status as 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. These leading principles form the basic constitutional legal system. Constitutional weight is thus accorded to these principles, so that any "complete alteration" to the national constitution can only take place if first agreed to 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 are 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.

3. Private Law

3.1. Overview

Private law is divided into general private law applicable to all persons, and specialized forms of civil law, which are 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) which was enacted in 1811 and came into force in 1812. Through the first significant amendments in the years 1914, 1915, and 1916, parts of the ABGB were adapted to the German Bürgerliche Gesetzbuch (BGB) of 1896. Further important amendments, especially concerning the Familienrecht (Family Law), were made in the seventies. Other parts of general private law are regulated in separate laws like the Ehegesetz (Marriage Act), Mietrechtsgesetz (Act on Tenancy Law) and the Konsumentenschutzgesetz (Consumer Protection Law).

Although case law is not legally binding, it does have decisive persuasive authority.

Several 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 of the ABGB. Good faith is protected by Section 367, allowing those in good faith to acquire from bad faith or non-entitled possessors.

3.2. Main Aspects of Private Law

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—e.g., if the defect cannot be corrected and essential to the contract—to 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.

4. Criminal Law

4.1. Overview

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 broad 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. Through the Constitutio Criminalis Theresiana, which came into effect in 1768, Austria finally had a uniform, substantive criminal and criminal proceedings law. In 1804, a new law came into effect, which was amended in 1852 and for a greater part remained valid till 1974. In 1974, the StGB came into effect. Important amendments, especially concerning juvenile court law and the law governing sexual offences, were made in the eighties.

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.

4.2. Fundamental Principles of the Criminal Procedure

The fair trial principle and the principle of the presumption of innocence (the accused remains innocent until his guilt is proven) are guaranteed; 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). Some of the principles of criminal law, like the public principle or the speech principle, which the Constitutio Criminalis Theresiana did not do justice to, were implemented in 1873 through the code of criminal procedure.

5. Austrian Court System

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.

5.1. Courts of Public Law Jurisdiction

5.1.1. Supreme Court of Justice

The Supreme Court of Justice (Oberster Gerichtshof – OGH) is the final instance in civil and criminal proceedings (Art. 92 Para.1 of the Federal Constitution) and hence the supreme institution of ordinary jurisdiction (Sec.1 Para.1 of the Supreme Court Act). Accordingly, it would be in breach of the constitution to establish a further instance above the Supreme Court of Justice for civil or criminal cases. However, that does not mean that an appeal must lie to the Supreme Court of Justice in all ordinary judicial proceedings. The Supreme Court sits in civil and in criminal cases in panels (currently 17 panels: 11 in civil cases, five in criminal cases, one panel as a Superior Court for anti-trust cases).

A simple panel has to be enlarged by the addition of six further members of the Supreme Court (enlarged panel) if following submission of the report, it holds by ruling that a decision on an issue of fundamental importance is to depart from the Supreme Court's established court practice or from the last decision rendered on the issue by an enlarged panel, or that a legal issue of fundamental importance has not been given a uniform answer in the court practice of the Supreme Court. As part of overall ordinary jurisdiction, the Supreme Court performs a comprehensive guiding function consisting of the safeguarding of legal unity, legal certainty, and the development of the law.

In civil cases, the Supreme Court decides above all on appeals. An appeal is subject to statutory limits based for instance on the value of the matter at issue decided by the appeal court, on the importance of the legal question in the proceedings in question for unity of the law, legal certainty or the development of the law, an admissibility declaration issued by the appeal court, or the assertion of certain grounds for granting leave for an appeal to the Supreme Court. Where admissibility of the appeal to the Supreme Court depends on the amount at issue, this amount must in any event exceed €4,000.

In criminal cases, the Supreme Court primarily decides on nullity appeals and associated appeals, as well as on nullity appeals filed by the Procurator General to uphold the integrity of the law, on appeals regarding fundamental rights, and other appeals against individual rulings of the superior provincial courts. In addition to the ordinary jurisdiction, the Supreme Court also has a number of other functions (e.g., opinions on draft legislation, final employment and disciplinary court for judges, final instance in disciplinary proceedings against notaries, etc.)

5.1.2. Constitutional Court

The Constitutional Court (Verfassungsgerichtshof - VfGH) is the highest state body in Austria when considering constitutional law. By their decisions, the constitutional justices create legal certainty for federal and state legislators, for the administration, as well as for every individual. This is their core responsibility. The Constitutional Court is also one of the highest political bodies in Austria. Sometimes the justices of the Court have to make decisions that carry extensive political consequences. As a court, it cannot take action on its own; however, it is required to make a decision if it is called on to do so by a permissible application. The opposition is thereby given the opportunity to oppose a law that it thinks may be unconstitutional. A review of legislation is also possible if the Court, while reviewing a particular case, has some doubt as to the constitutional validity of the law.

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 Administrative Court.

5.1.3. Administrative Court

The Administrative Court (Verwaltungsgerichtshof – VwGH) monitors the legality of administrative acts. It is limited to controlling the legal justification of individual decisions, while appeals regarding violation of rights guaranteed by constitutional law or the application of unlawful general norms have to be addressed to the Constitutional Court. Appeals to the Administrative Court are of the following types: "appeal against a notice of an order or a decision" ("Bescheidbeschwerde"), open to all persons who claim that their subjective right has been injured by an official notice; “party appeal” ("Parteibeschwerde"); "default appeal" ("Säumnisbeschwerde"), which can be lodged by any party to administrative proceedings to claim that an authority has failed to meet its obligation to deliver a decision within the legally stipulated time; "appeal against an official instruction" ("Weisungsbeschwerde"); and, to certain state organs in specific cases determined by law in order to maintain control of the objective legality of the administration, “appeal on the part of an administrative authority” ("Amtsbeschwerde").

5.2. Courts of Ordinary Jurisdiction

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. The district courts have jurisdiction in lawsuits where the value does not exceed €10,000 and in cases that have been assigned to them by law, such as family law and rental matters, and in criminal law on all offences that are liable to a fine or a prison sentence that does not exceed one year. 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. Regional courts decide in all cases that are not assigned to the district courts.

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). The four province courts in Austria are in Vienna (for Vienna, Lower Austria and Burgenland), Graz (for Styria and Carinthia), Linz (for Upper Austria and Salzburg) and Innsbruck (for Tyrol and Vorarlberg). 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 five Senates for criminal cases, 11 for civil cases and two additional for labor 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.

6. Legal Resources

6.1. The Legal Information System of the Republic of Austria (RIS)

The Legal Information System of the Republic of Austria is a computer-assisted information system on Austrian law, which is coordinated and operated by the Austrian Federal Chancellery and can be used not only by law students and lawyers, but by all citizens to look up current and historical legal acts as well as legislation in force, both federal and provincial, and the case-law of the courts (at least the supreme courts). Its beginnings date back to 1983 when the essential features of the system were designed. On October 7, 1986, the federal government formally resolved the institution of a comprehensive legal information system, to be operated by the Federal Chancellery, thereby laying a secure basis for the development of the present system. October 7, 1986, therefore, can be regarded as the birthday of the Austrian Legal Information System RIS, which can celebrate its 35th anniversary in 2021. After, during the 1990s, the major part of the federal legislation had been incorporated into the system, and decisions of the supreme courts started to be included. Since June 1997 the RIS, which previously had been accessible only to the public administration, is available on the internet free of charge as one of the first public government projects.

The Legal Information System covers over 99% of Austrian federal law and contains the following:

Amendments are incorporated as soon as they are promulgated so that the database always contains the applicable version of a document (one document: one section or one article or one 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. Previous versions are available back to the first version entered after the creation of the Legal Information System, which regularly means back to the early 1990s. It is also possible to get the whole consolidated version of one law as amended as well as historical versions for any day of the existence of every law (in the Legal Information System, regularly back to the 1990s).

A much-appreciated feature are the lists of originating issues of gazettes covering both original versions and amendments together with, in the case of a parliamentary law or international treaty approved by parliament, the respective parliamentary materials (minutes, commission reports etc.), all items of the list being clickable, thereby leading to the documents held on the website of the Parliamentary Administration.

As a result of the cooperation with the offices of State (regional) governments, the Legal Information System contains all issues of the State Law Gazettes of all the Austrian provinces in their authentic versions and, back over a varying range of years, former non-authentic versions. The consolidated State Law contains the applicable version of a document. Amendments are incorporated as soon as they are promulgated, and historical versions are available. The municipal law database contains the laws of some Austrian municipalities.

The European Community Law Database (EUR-Lex) provides free access to European Union law and other documents considered to be public. The website is available in 24 official languages of the European Union. The EUR-Lex database is made up of the following sections: treaties, legislation in force, international agreements, preparatory acts, case law, parliamentary questions, and consolidated legislation.

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 Supreme 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), of the Federal Administrative Court and the nine State Administrative Courts (since 2014), of the Data Protection Authority, of the Equal Treatment Commission, of the Disciplinary Commissions, Supreme Disciplinary Commission and Appeals Tribunal and a lot of other historical tribunals and commissions.

The applications are supplemented with a comprehensive collection of links to websites of Austrian federal and regional authorities, the EU and international organizations as well as to other online providers of legal data (select “list of links”). The most applications offer documents in three different file formats (HTML, PDF, RTF), to support the further processing.

In order to ensure the authenticity and integrity of the content, e.g., the Law Gazettes (federal and state), the Veterinary Bulletins and the Statutory Provisions of the Social Security Institutions are affixed with an electronic signature. All signatures are PDF-based (PAdES).

6.2. Courts

6.3. Further Online Resources

6.4. Selected Major Commentaries

Austrian law is documented by a plethora of legal literature such as commentaries, handbooks, textbooks, or journals. The following is a selected list organized by subject.

Constitutional Law

Civil Code

Code of Civil Procedure

Code of Criminal Procedure

Commercial Code

Competition Law

Criminal Law

EU Law

6.5. Selected Printed Legal Resources in English