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AUSTRIA: An Introduction

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Overview Dispute Resolution 

Austria remains highly attractive to business with its reputation as a “gateway to Eastern Europe” and its private investor support of start-ups. The very high entrance bar to law practice is a dis-tinct peculiarity of Austria, requiring international firms and companies with disputes to turn to skilled and specialized Austrian legal counsel.

Litigation in Austria 

Structure of Civil Proceedings 

Austrian civil proceedings are designed as adversarial processes with inquisitorial elements. The judge is, to a large extent, bound by the arguments advanced by parties, but is not a passive “referee”. The judge is the primary interrogator of parties and witnesses. Only after the judge has finished his examination, can the parties directly examine the witnesses.

Pre-trial 

Pre-trial discovery only takes place to a very minimal extent and is limited to documents that are already known to the opposing party. The parties may submit arguments and proffer evidence to the court in written briefs before the first hearing.

Oral Hearings 

After the first hearing, arguments must be made orally in court by qualified Austrian counsel. The oral hearing is obligatory, accessible to the public and is the touchstone of proceedings. Written witness statements or affidavits are – with some exceptions – not permitted. The courts of first instance are generally not permitted to reach decisions based solely on written submissions.

In the hearing, the judge will determine all relevant facts, examine the parties and witnesses and, as necessary, appoint and hear expert witnesses.

Court System 

Austrian civil courts are organized on three levels (District/Regional Courts, Higher Regional Courts, and the Supreme Court), with some specialised courts e.g., for commercial matters. Judgments are generally appealable to at least one level, depending on the amount in dispute and whether the issues are of broader relevance. In certain cases, a further appeal to the Austri-an Supreme Court is possible.

Costs of Litigation 

Legal costs are recoverable to a certain extent. Every party is required to pay its own costs, in-cluding court, lawyers’, experts’ and translators’ fees during proceedings. At the conclusion, the court will make a decision on costs, generally ordering the losing party to compensate the winner. Reimbursable lawyers’ fees are established by tariff, depending on the amount in dispute and the procedural steps taken. The actual lawyer’s fees charged often exceed the tariff. Consequent-ly, a winning party may still end up having to pay more than the reimbursement awarded.

Arbitration in Austria 

General Overview 

Austria and, in particular, its capital city Vienna, is long-established as one of the European hubs for regional international arbitration. The Vienna International Arbitral Centre of the Federal Eco-nomic Chamber (VIAC) provides excellent administration of international arbitrations.

Austria continues to build its reputation as an arbitration-friendly jurisdiction with the implemen-tation of direct recourse to a specialized chamber of the Austrian Supreme Court as first and final instance regarding proceedings to set-aside an arbitral award. Practice has shown that a well-reasoned decision will be rendered within six to eight months on average. An arbitration with its seat in Austria will be governed by Austrian arbitration law which is con-tained in the Austrian Code of Civil Procedure. It is strongly based on the UNCITRAL Model Law with minor deviations.

The Arbitration Agreement 

Austrian law requires that arbitration agreements must identify, in writing, the parties and the dispute which are subject to arbitration. The writing is either part of a document signed by the parties or an exchange of any means of recorded communication.

Overall, both Austrian legislation and courts are arbitration-friendly in enforcing arbitration agreements.

The Arbitral Proceedings and the Arbitral Award 

Austrian arbitration law grants parties extensive autonomy with only few mandatory legal provi-sions that cannot be waived. Arbitrators must observe the parties' right to fair treatment and each party’s right to be heard. Arbitrators shall be independent and impartial.

Within three months after the receipt of the arbitral award, a party is entitled to file an action to set it aside on an enumerated list of grounds.

Enforcement  

Austria has ratified the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards without reservation, the 1961 European Convention on International Commercial Arbitration, the ICSID Convention and several Bilateral Investment Treaties.

Current Developments and Trends 

Class Actions and Third Party Funding 

A recent development is an increase in both governmental and (more so) new private enforce-ment and class actions, to counter harm to markets through illegal cartels.

In the past, 'Austrian-style' class actions have been facilitated by third-party litigation funders, including investor claims through filing mass actions at the Commercial Court of Vienna; for ex-ample, against AWD, AMIS, Meinl Bank, Immoeast-Immofinanz and, most recently, Volkswagen. Now, ongoing “Dieselgate” cases demonstrate the increasing self-sufficiency of consumers in collective lawsuits facilitated by cross-border dissemination of legal knowledge via internet plat-forms.

International Reputation and Influences 

Austria continues to enjoy a respected profile on the international scene owing to its transparent, effective and reliable legal system, fair trials, efficiency and its enforcement of the rule of law. This exceptional reputation has been enhanced through ongoing processes of streamlining court proceedings, promoting settlements, halved court fees and encouraging mediation. Austria is a country where enforcement is effective and speedy when compared to other European jurisdic-tions, giving creditors ready access to the enforcement register to determine whether assets are available.

As a means of accelerating lengthy proceedings in white collar crime cases previously sparking public resentment, Austrian public prosecutors further enable the freezing of accounts and as-sets as well as information sharing in the context of cross-border assets and criminal activity.

Data Protection 

A further trend increasing activity in Austrian courts was induced by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Under a recent Austrian Supreme Court ruling, the GDPR takes priority over conflicting Austrian procedural rules, allowing enforcement of GDPR claims (damages, injunctive relief etc.) not only by regulatory authorities, but also – and in parallel – in civil courts. In 2019 a record fine of 18 million Euros was imposed on the Österreichische Post AG for alleged breaches of the GDPR (proceedings under appeal).

Legal System Innovations 

Austria was the first country in the world to implement Electronic Legal Communication (ELC) for the electronic transmission of documents to and from courts. Continuing along an expansionary path towards e-Justice, the Austrian judicial system invests a portion of its continuing revenues into this venture.

Updated VIAC Rules of Arbitration and Mediation 

The latest amendment of the VIAC Arbitration and Mediation Rules in 2018 (“VIAC Rules”) was triggered by the change that extended VIAC jurisdiction to encompass domestic arbitration and mediation.

The VIAC Rules now envision that arbitrators and counsel conduct arbitration in an efficient manner. Arbitral tribunals may consider counsels’ contribution to the conduct of an efficient pro-ceeding in decisions on costs. Similarly, the VIAC rules provide that the General Secretary of VIAC may affect the arbitrator’s fees by 40% because of inefficient or “especially efficient” conduct of the arbitration.  

The VIAC Rules now provide that arbitral tribunals have the power to issue an order for security for costs if the respondent shows that recovering a potential claim for costs is at risk with a ‘suf-ficient degree of probability’.

Construction Arbitration 

Construction arbitration continues to grow in Austria in view of the number of relevant interna-tional players and the technical complexities of large infrastructure projects. The use of escala-tion clauses providing for negotiations, mediation and adjudication is standard. The recent amendment of the VIAC Rules allowing the administration of domestic disputes has also sparked the interest of construction companies for arbitration in connection with domestic projects.