Radbruch formula

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The Radbruch Formula (German: Radbruchsche Formel) is a theory of law which was first formulated in a 1946 essay by the German law professor and politician Gustav Radbruch. According to the theory, a judge who encounters a conflict between a statute and what he perceives as just, has to decide against applying the statute if - and only if - the legal concept behind the statute in question seems either "unbearably injust" or in "deliberate disregard" of human equality before the law.

Radbruch's Formula is rooted in the situation of a Civil Law System. It is believed[weasel words] to be a reaction of Radbruch's experience of the judiciary in Nazi Germany and has been applied in the decision of courts in the Federal Republic of Germany numerous times. By some authors[weasel words], the Radbruch essay Gesetzliches Unrecht und übergesetzliches Recht, which first included his theory, is regarded as one of the most influential legal-philosophical writings of the 20th Century.[1]

Formation and Content[edit]

Before the Second World War, Radbruch seems to have been a supporter of unconditional Legal Positivism, which demands a strict separation between law and morality. In consequence, judges would have to apply positive law (i.e. statutes) without exception. The experience of the Third Reich (where Radbruch, then a professor, was banned from teaching), seemed to have modified Radbruch's view. Shortly after the end of the war, Radbruch first stated his formula in a 1946 essay:

Excerpt: Der Konflikt zwischen der Gerechtigkeit und der Rechtssicherheit dürfte dahin zu lösen sein, daß das positive, durch Satzung und Macht gesicherte Recht auch dann den Vorrang hat, wenn es inhaltlich ungerecht und unzweckmäßig ist, es sei denn, daß der Widerspruch des positiven Gesetzes zur Gerechtigkeit ein so unerträgliches Maß erreicht, daß das Gesetz als „unrichtiges Recht“ der Gerechtigkeit zu weichen hat. Es ist unmöglich, eine schärfere Linie zu ziehen zwischen den Fällen des gesetzlichen Unrechts und den trotz unrichtigen Inhalts dennoch geltenden Gesetzen; eine andere Grenzziehung aber kann mit aller Schärfe vorgenommen werden: wo Gerechtigkeit nicht einmal erstrebt wird, wo die Gleichheit, die den Kern der Gerechtigkeit ausmacht, bei der Setzung positiven Rechts bewußt verleugnet wurde, da ist das Gesetz nicht etwa nur „unrichtiges“ Recht, vielmehr entbehrt es überhaupt der Rechtsnatur. Denn man kann Recht, auch positives Recht, gar nicht anders definieren als eine Ordnung und Satzung, die ihrem Sinne nach bestimmt ist, der Gerechtigkeit zu dienen.[2]

Excerpt (Translation): The conflict between justice and the reliability of the law should be solved in favour of the positive law, law enacted by proper authority and power, even in cases where it is injust in terms of content and purpose, except for cases where the discrepancy between the positive law and justice reaches a level so unbearable that the statute has to make way for justice because it has to be considered "erroneous law". It is impossible to draw a sharper line of demarcation between cases of legal injustice and statutes that are applicable despite their erroneous content; however, another line of demarcation can be drawn with rigidity: Where justice is not even strived for, where equality, which is the core of justice, is renounced in the process of legislation, there a statute is not just 'erroneous law', in fact is not of legal nature at all. That is because law, also positive law, cannot be defined otherwise as a rule, that is precisely intended to serve justice.

Radbruch restated his concept in the book Vorschule der Rechtsphilosophie (published posthumously).

Reception in Court[edit]

Both the German Federal Constitutional Court and the Federal Court of Justice have applied Radbruch's Formula numerous times. Its first court appearances were in cases concerned with National Socialist crimes. The defendants in those cases argued that, according to National Socialist statutes valid at the time of their actions, their deeds were legal. The courts used Radbruch's formula to argue that some statutes had been so intolerable that they had not been law in the first place and consequently could not be used to justify the deeds in question. More recently, the Radbruch formula reappeared in trials against East German soldiers, ordered to protect the inner-German border.


  1. ^ E.g. S. Paulson and R.Dreier, 'Einführung in die Rechtsphilosophie Radbruchs', in: Gustav Radbruch: Rechtsphilosophie, Studienausgabe (Heidelberg, 1999), pp. 235–250
  2. ^ G. Radbruch, Gesetzliches Unrecht und übergesetzliches Recht, Süddeutsche Juristenzeitung (1946), p. 107