The Court

Blick auf die Richterbank im Elisabeth-Selbert-Saal des Bundessozialgerichts

Function and tasks of the Federal Social Court

As in the case of other Federal Courts, the Federal Social Court acts as an appeal court only on points of law.

In legal proceedings before the Federal Social Court it is therefore basically unimportant whether, for example, the ruling being appealed is based on the wrong interpretation of a medical report, whether a witness made a false statement or the Higher Social Court extracted something from the court file which was not contained in it in such a form. This is because the Federal Social Court is bound to the actual findings made in the judgement being appealed. Alternatives only apply if the Higher Social Court makes procedural errors in its actual findings. However, these must then also be contestable in the legal process before the Federal Social Court and contested in the proper form. The Federal Social Court cannot conduct its own fact findings in the appeal process. It cannot, for example, call witnesses. If the case cannot be ruled on the basis of the findings actually available, the legal dispute must be referred back to the previous instance for a new trial and ruling.

Significance of Federal Social Court rulings

As a matter of principle, the legal validity of a Federal Social Court judgement only applies to the participants in the respective case. Generally, administrative authorities that have to decide on numerous similar cases are involved in appeals heard by the Federal Social Court. Despite not being legally binding, the rulings of the Federal Social Court thus often actually form a guideline for the decisions that administrative authorities make in similar cases. This also essentially contributes to the fact that important decisions made by the Federal Social Court are published in law reports, professional journals and social security organisation publications. In addition, the Federal Social Court informs the public by reporting all court dates on its website (www.bundessozialgericht.de). Furthermore, up-to-date judgement transcripts for the current year and the previous 5 years are made available.

Among other rulings in recent times, court panels have decided that

  • within the complex process of allocations from the health fund (in 2010 more than Euro 170 billion), healthcare companies have no entitlement to higher allocations,
  • tied attorneys (so-called "corporate counsel") are not entitled to exemption from the insurance obligation contained in statutory pension provisions,
  • successor’s pension paid to the surviving wife by a statutory accident insurance can also be paid out when treatment of the long-term comatose husband is stopped,
  • statutory accident insurance during company events (such as Christmas parties) that are held by management or with their approval as their own is valid,
  • rental fees for a cello used at school are not benefits included in educational or participation packages,
  • there are no constitutional objections to digital data matching among job centres and the Federal Central Tax Office to determine capital gains,
  • the payment of child allowances to unaccompanied minors or orphaned refugee children who have already been living in Germany for a long time and cannot be deported because they possess the necessary residence permit, may not be conditional on gainful employment,
  • unemployable disabled adults who receive subsistence grants or basic old-age and reduced earning capacity benefits and live with both parents or one parent, have a claim to maintenance benefits at requirement level 1 (100%),
  • supplying a wig is not part of the statutory health insurance service package especially not to an older man,
  • the entitlement to a knee brace (propelled by muscle power) ("CAM brace") enabling independent therapy and to modern continuous blood sugar monitoring instruments ("Continous Glucose Monitoring System") in the context of medical treatment depends on a positive recommendation from the German Joint Government Committee (G-BA),
  • preliminary ruling proceedings will be initiated at the European Court of Justice on the question to what extent EU citizens residing in Germany as job seekers can be excluded from social benefits.

Access to the Court of Appeal

The duty of the Federal Social Courts is above all to secure legal uniformity and the development of the law and accordingly access to appeal courts is restricted. An appeal is only admissible if leave to appeal was expressly granted in the judgement of the Higher Social Court (or a leap-frog version of the judgement of the Social Court) or is granted by the Federal Social Court in response to a refusal of leave to appeal.

In 2014 about 70% of all appeals received by the Federal Social Court were granted by Higher Social Courts, 12% (as leap-frog appeals) from the Social Courts; about 18% of appeals were granted by the Federal Social Court on the basis of refusals of leave to appeal.

Leave to appeal is only granted if

  • the legal matter has fundamental significance, in other word it addresses unresolved legal issues and its significance goes beyond the individual case or
  • the judgement made by the previous instance deviates from a decision of the Federal Social Court, the Joint Panel of the Supreme Courts of the federal government or the Federal Constitutional Court or
  • a procedural irregularity is asserted that impacts on the result (this reason for appeal is only considered for refusals of leave to appeal); not all procedural irregularities can be asserted; the asserted procedural irregularity can only be based on a violation of the official duty to investigate the facts if it relates to an application to produce evidence which the Higher Social Court did not follow without giving sufficient justification.

Experience has shown that if the appeal has not yet been granted by a Social or Higher Social Court, an appeal to the Federal Social Court against refusal of leave to appeal presents a hurdle that can be difficult to overcome. So for example in 2014 only about 6% of applications against refusal of leave to appeal were granted.

A complaint against refusal of leave to appeal submitted by the attorney on record must describe the reasons raised against the appeal precisely, comprehensively and according to certain rules in order to be admissible in the first place. It is only justified if the grounds for appeal actually exist. If the procedural irregularity does not actually exist or had no influence on the result of the judgement being appealed, the complaint against refusal of leave to appeal is rejected for being unjustified. Then there will also be no appeal proceedings.

Development of the judicial functions

When the Federal Social Court started its public sessions in March 1955, there were about 1,000 appeals pending. 2,280 new appeals were received in the same year. By 1964 the number of new appeals had risen to about 3,000 per annum with certain fluctuations. Then the number of new appeals dropped to about 2,000 in 1974, essentially due to the reduction of issues regarding the care of victims of war.

A fundamental up-date of the law on appeals in 1975 led to a permanent restructuring of the types of proceedings. The number of new appeals dropped noticeably: from about 2,000 per annum in 1974 to about 1,000 in 1975. This reduction, however, was counterbalanced by the receipt of appeals against the refusal of leave to appeal (1975: 1,151). Thereafter for many years, new appeals and complaints against non-allowance were received at a ratio of 1 to 2.

Over recent years the proportion of appeals against refusal of leave to appeal rose steadily. From 2010 to 2014, an average of about 480 appeals and about 2,080 appeals against refusal of leave to appeal were received every year.

Organisation of the Federal Social Court

The President

The Federal Social Court is led by a President who holds a special legal position. On the one hand, he is the supervisor of the judges, civil servants and salaried employees at the Federal Social Court. In this function he exercises among other things administrative supervision of judges, however, only within the limits arising from judicial independence. On the other hand, he is a judge, who holds the chair on an expert panel and in addition by law that of the Great Panel, Executive Committee and Presidential Council.

Since October 2016, Dr. Rainer Schlegel (Prof) has been the President of the Federal Social Court. Dr. Thomas Voelzke (Prof) has been the Vice-President since June 2017.

Former Presidents of the Federal Social Court: Dr. Joseph Schneider, September 1954 to October 1968; Dr. Georg Wannagat (Prof), November 1968 to June 1984; Dr. Heinrich Reiter (Prof), July 1984 to August 1995; Dr. Matthias von Wulffen, September 1995 to December 2007; Dr. h.c. Peter Masuch, January 2008 to September 2016.

The panels

Expert panels are established to ensure that the judicial tasks at the Federal Social Court are performed. These decide on the appeals with in principle five members including the chairman, three of which are professional judges. In addition, two lay judges are always included.

The expert panels are each tasked with certain matters of social security through the distribution-of-business plan and allocated to the judges as well as the lay judges. The distribution-of-business plan is always drawn up by an executive committee selected from the panel of judges at the start of each calendar year for its duration.

The Federal Social Court was inaugurated in 1953 with 10 panels. Currently there are 14.

The Grand Panel

Like in all federal supreme courts, there is also a Grand Panel in the Federal Social Court which decides in cases where a panel wants to deviate from the decision made by another panel or by the Grand Panel concerning a question of law, or one panel calls on the Grand Panel regarding a question of fundamental importance because in its view this is necessary for the development of law or securing legal uniformity. The Grand Panel consists of the President and a professional judge from each panel where the President is not the chairman. In addition, there are at least six lay judges.

Judges appointed to the Federal Social Court

Professional judges

At the beginning of its activities in 1954, the Federal Social Court had 24 permanent posts for professional judges. In view of the changing case loads, the number of judges has fluctuated over the years. As of 1 August 2015 there are 43 permanent posts for judges (President, Vice President, 10 presiding judges, 31 judges).

Professional Federal Social Court judges must be 36 years or older. The judges’ selection code specifies that they are to be elected by the judge election board and then appointed by the Federal President. Half the members of the judge election board are social jurisdiction ministers (or senators) of the respective state and the other half are appointed through election by the Bundestag.

Lay judges

Only in social and labour jurisdiction do lay judges also participate in reaching a verdict in the court of the last instance. Their participation in expert chambers (Social Courts) or expert panels (Higher Social Courts and the Federal Social Court) is important in order to involve and anchor social jurisdiction in civil society, and also for scenarios in which aside from legal questions, actual complex cases are dealt with (for example when judging work accidents and work-related illnesses, or categorising new treatment methods in the health insurances).

Like the professional judges, the lay judges acting in the Federal Social Court may not be younger than 36 and must have regularly participated in a social or a higher social court for at least five years. When decisions are being made their voice carries the same weight as that of professional judges.

Lay judges are generally appointed for five years by the Federal Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs on the basis of nomination lists from trade unions, independent associations of employees with socio-political and occupational objectives, employer associations, associations of state health service doctors and dentists as well as the health insurance groupings. For lay judges on the panel responsible for matters of the social compensation and disabled codes, the highest administrative authorities of the federal states and beneficiary associations pursuant to the social compensation code and associations of the disabled are entitled to submit nominations if their influence extends across Germany and they have a certain number of members. Lay judges participating in the panel responsible for social assistance and the Asylum Seekers Benefit Act are appointed on the basis of nomination lists from districts and independent towns.

Just as for the Social and Higher Social Courts, there is also a committee of lay judges. It is composed of seven members elected by the lay judges. The committee must be heard in advance of the formation of panels, the distribution of business and before lay judges are allocated to panels.

Scientific co-workers

The expert panels at the Federal Social Court are supported by scientific co-workers from the various federal states. As a rule, scientific co-workers are qualified Social Court judges, who are generally seconded to the Federal Social Court for two years. Their main function is to support the Federal Social Court judges with preparatory work, in particular, by compiling votes and examining individual questions of law.

Court administration

The administration of the Federal Social Court is the administrative manager’s responsibility and comprises central division, business unit, information technology as well as the scientific service, library and document office. In addition, judicial subject specialists are appointed for special tasks, especially a presidential advisor and press officer.

Central Division

The Central Division makes personnel and equipment available to the entire operation of the Federal Social Court and organises business processes, providing the central services of the court administration.

The Central Division is divided into the following areas: "presidential administrative tasks", "personnel management", "personnel development", "press and publicity work", "equality", "audit jobandfamily", "social matters", "budget", "organisation", "allocation office", "contract matters", "internal service" as well as "property and building management".

The Federal Social Court employs (as of August 2015) a total of 216 people (43 judges, 10 scientific co-workers, 68 civil servants, 89 employees subject to wage negotiations and 6 apprentices).

Funds required for personnel and material expenses are allocated to the Federal Social Court within the budget framework via its own budget chapter (1115) in the individual budget plan of the Federal Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs.

Administrative office

The administrative office of the Federal Social Court is divided into three service units which are staffed by civil servants and salaried employees.
Service units are responsible for the proper and appropriate course of business of the panel allocated to them. Their tasks include supporting judges in their judicial duties and editing judicial decisions, taking minutes of verbal negotiations, registrations and certifications as well as taking care of the necessary written work.

Information technology

The IT department is responsible for equipping the workplaces with proper functional hard- and software as well as for the proper operation of the local network, central facilities in the data centre and lines of communication with the outside world, while adhering to the requirements of IT security. In addition, it assists court members with all problems connected to the use of IT. Particularly important is the adaptation of existing IT processes to changing technology and the introduction of new IT-supported work processes especially in electronic communication (electronic legal communication) and electronic filing.

Scientific service


Concomitant with the establishment of the Federal Social Court in 1954, the library was created as a specialised judicial library to provide literature to judges as well as scientific co-workers at the Federal Social Court. In principle, it is open to the public and is used by judges and particularly also by scientists at the University of Kassel with which there is close cooperation. Through extensive acquisitions, an annual addition of about 3,000 volumes led to a total stock of about 169,500 volumes by the end of 2014, among these about 290 current loose-leaf publications, 560 current periodicals and about 600 social security provider statutes.

All areas of social legislation aim at an acquisition that is as complete and continuous as possible. The extensive stock of specialised legal periodicals that can be consulted at any time should be highlighted. To round off the stock of social legislation works, related areas (for example labour law, social sciences) are specifically incorporated. There is basic and standard literature relating to nearly all other legal areas.

The historical stock comes almost exclusively from the German Reich’s Board of Social Insurance in Berlin which was dissolved in 1954. In this regard, the library experienced an impressive growth when it inherited almost 20,000 volumes from the Reich’s Board. Included here is rare literature that former lower instances could not afford. Many of the old works are no longer available in any other library today.

An information centre with two permanent attendants and 26 reading stations is available to users. The majority of the literature is freely accessible. Visitors from outside are welcome and may be granted regular use, provided there is enough space. The Federal Social Court library is purely a reference library.

The entire stock has been captured electronically and can be researched using the online catalogue in the library. For this purpose, a computer is available to visitors. The library frequently sells selected specialist books from its stock which are mainly out-dated editions of texts and commentaries.

Document office

The sphere of activities of the Federal Social Court’s document office includes internal services and the preparation of documents for data inventory on the Federal Republic of Germany’s Judicial Information System (juris). The services are predominately used by judges as well as scientific co-workers to support them in their judicial function. However, they are also available to non-judicial court employees and in part to the public.

The document office’s internal services mainly comprise the creation of information services and pending legal questions in the Federal Social Court, communicating information and producing special data compilations. The information on legal questions regarding appeals pending in the Federal Social Court supplied by the document office can be accessed on the website of the Federal Social Court (www.bundessozialgericht.de). In addition, the document office prepares judgements, literature and administrative regulations for juris; this information is available to Federal Social Court judges for research purposes via this link.

Press and public relations work

Schedule preview and report

The expert panels at the Federal Social Court report on all upcoming hearings and decisions beforehand with the schedule preview, which can be downloaded on the Federal Social Court’s website (www.bundessozialgericht.de). Immediately after the hearings, information on the decisions taken by the Federal Social Court in the sessions is made available. The schedule previews are usually published seven to ten days before every session and contain a short description of the cases being decided. The schedule reports give the participants information on the results after every ruling or in the event of a decision without verbal proceedings after the judgement has been delivered.

Schedule indicators and media information

The Federal Social Court makes special schedule indicators available to the press which inform the public in advance of hearing dates that are particularly important or interesting to the public. The schedule indicator contains a summary the upcoming legal question being decided on, its practical relevance and the facts it is based on.
The Federal Social Court communicates the result of interesting proceedings and important events through separate press releases. Should the press release report on decisions taken by the Federal Social Court, the facts and the main reasons for the decision are presented and actual and legal backgrounds of the case may be explained for better understanding.
Schedule indicators and media information as well as schedule previews and reports are, however, not official Federal Social Court publications but primarily work documents for media representatives.

Activity report

In the spring of every year, the Federal Social Court issues a report on its previous year’s activities. Aside from statistics, the activity report also contains contextual information on court judgements.

Annual press conference

The activity report is presented during the traditional annual press conference serving not only to communicate the object and extent of Federal Social Court judgements over the previous year, but also to discuss current pending problems regarding social law and social policies.


The website "www.bundessozialgericht.de" offers visitors access to diverse information about the Federal Social Court such as business distribution, questions of law, rulings and the media.

On the website under "Press" the schedule indicators and media information can be downloaded and while "Schedule" contains the schedule previews and reports. The offer is supplemented under "Decision" by free access to the complete text and - if available - the guiding principles of Federal Social Court decisions in the current and the last five years. Older decisions and decisions for commercial purposes can be obtained from the Court‘s dispatch office for a fee.

The Federal Social Court offers up-dated RSS feeds for all schedule previews and reports, media information as well as all decisions recently made available on the website.

Additional Information

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