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Willful intent or error: Can ignorance of law protect against punishment?

12 March 2018 | By:
Prof. Christoph Wolf
Insights into criminal law with Professor Dr. iur. Christoph Wolf

Christoph Wolf has been an assistant professor of criminal law and criminal procedure law at EBS University since May 2017. In the interview, he explains why, in most cases, ignorance of law does not protect against punishment and what is the secret behind EBS law graduates’ outstanding exam results.

Professor Wolf, what are your main fields of research?

So far I have mainly dealt with the subject of willful intent and error. The questions that arise there can easily be clarified by means of an example from criminal tax law: A law professor draws up a legal report and receives a “quite gratifying” fee for it, as he writes in a recent publication. Under German tax law, he would therefore have been obliged to file an advance return for VAT in the following year, which he, however, apparently unaware of his legal obligation, failed to do. One might now ask whether he deliberately evaded taxes at this point in time. The prevailing opinion in German criminal law is that if the offender does not know that he owes taxes to the state, he is not liable for prosecution for intentional tax evasion. This is commonly known as the so-called “Steueranspruchstheorie” (tax claim theory).

Does this impunity apply in principle if I was unaware of my legal obligations?

Quite the opposite! Common parlance justifiably says: “Ignorance of the law does not protect against punishment.” And that also follows from § 17 of the German Criminal Code. This says: Whoever lacks knowledge that an act is wrong will only not be punished if he is unavoidably unable to perceive legal wrong.

Are there other current cases in which a perpetrator’s misconceptions about our legal system affect his criminal liability?

I can think of a very interesting current example of this, keyword “honour killing”. An offender, who had only been in Germany for a few months, was recently convicted of this crime. On the day of the crime, he had suspected his wife of being unfaithful to him, so he threw her out of the window and then killed her with a knife. The defendant was convicted of “Totschlag”, because he did not have base motives, which would in German law have been crucial for being convicted of murder. However, according to the court, it was not possible for him to subjectively comprehend the baseness of his motivation due to his background and origins.

This example shows that future lawyers must analyse the details of a case. In your opinion, what are the advantages of studying at EBS?

Here we have small groups of students who are particularly interested in the subject of law and are very eager to learn. At the same time we have a completely different mentoring relationship than at a state university. I often experience that students want to talk through an exam or a paper with me personally. I’m very happy to do that, too. I see myself - especially in the “Examinatorium” (final lecture preparing the students for the state examination) - as a coach who wants to lead his team to success.

Which particular skills would you like to equip your students with?

Law is a demanding subject. It is not easy to succeed, especially in the final exams. Therefore I would like to say to my students: “Find strength in serenity”. There is no point in learning only every three weeks, but very intensively. But there’s also no point in studying seven days a week, twelve hours a day. It is important to me that the students do not just focus on the next exam, but also pursue both steadily and rigorously the overall goal of becoming a successful lawyer.

Thank you for this interview!

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