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I am interested in what laws, either explicit or implicit, cover the delivery of a letter in Germany.

I would imagine that if I accurately address a letter that contains content which is permitted, I add the correct postage, and the the letter 'enters' the postal system (more on that below), then some 'agreement' to deliver the letter is formed between myself and the postal service.

Specific questions:

  • Does posting a letter create any 'legal' agreement between myself and the postal service? Is there any obligation to deliver a letter?

  • Assuming that an agreement is formed, at what point in the process? When the letter entered a post-box, when it was picked up from the postbox, or later - perhaps when a post-mark is added by the postal service?

  • What commitments beyond the happy-path described above exist? Is there any commitment to attempt to deliver a letter with a less than perfect address (e.g. missing out the postal-code)? Or to offer the recipient the chance to pay the additional postage owed on a letter without enough postage?

Although I am most interested in Germany, if there are any relevant international postal regulations then I am also interested in how these apply.

  • The question approaches this from a contract law perspective, which is a plausible approach, but I'm not sure if it is a correct one. An alternative perspective is to see the postal service as a government agency with policies for handling mail that it adheres to because that is how the bureaucracy operates (making it a public law/administrative law issue) more than it does out of a motivation particular to a contract formed in one transaction the way that a private delivery service does. The latter seems to me to be likely to be a more fruitful way of analyzing the issue. – ohwilleke Mar 4 '19 at 20:06
  • Also, while not actually asked, the more useful question would be to ask what remedies someone sending a letter via the postal service has if the letter does not arrive at all or it delayed or misrouted. Laws that are not enforceable when someone is harmed when they are violated hardly deserve the name. I suspect that these rights are greatly diminished from the rights that would arise under the general principles of contract law, which is why I think that a public law/administrative law analysis probably makes more sense. – ohwilleke Mar 5 '19 at 22:12
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+50

Does posting a letter create any 'legal' agreement between myself and the postal service? Is there any obligation to deliver a letter?

Assuming that an agreement is formed, at what point in the process? When the letter entered a post-box, when it was picked up from the postbox, or later - perhaps when a post-mark is added by the postal service?

Posting a letter in Germany does not create a contractual agreement between you and the postal service (and so your follow up question above does not apply).

Instead, German postal service activities are governed by the Postal Act and regulations adopted by the postal service. The Postal Act creates a system in which independent contractors licensed by the government carry out parts of the process of delivering the mail and are given quasi-governmental status in connection with these activities. Since it is quasi-governmental it has immunity from legal liability, except as set forth expressly by statute.

The postal service and its contractors and employees are required to follow the Postal Act and related regulations, and the people and entities involved in doing so may have legal liability for compensatory damages caused to someone as a result of their intentional or negligent violation of the regulations. In contrast, contactual liability is generally imposed without regard to fault and any failure to perform as expected by the parties is actionable.

So, in Germany, you can't prevail in suing the postal service or a contractor or postal employee simply by showing that a letter wasn't delivered in a timely fashion, or wasn't forwarded appropriately. You also have to show a court why this happened and demonstrate that the conduct that caused this to happen was intentional or negligent compared to the standard of care for postal workers in the situation in which the alleged misconduct occurred.

German law, generally speaking, interprets compensatory damages rather narrowly compared to U.S. courts, for example, generally excluding damages for inconvenience and emotional distress, and favors orders compelling someone to carry out a duty in lieu of a damages award for failure to perform a duty, when possible.

Some of the obligations of contractors and employees, such as delivery deadlines, are overall performance standards which are not enforceable in individual cases because not every letter must meet those standards, only a certain percentage of a letters in the system.

What commitments beyond the happy-path described above exist? Is there any commitment to attempt to deliver a letter with a less than perfect address (e.g. missing out the postal-code)? Or to offer the recipient the chance to pay the additional postage owed on a letter without enough postage?

The highlighted language in subparagraph 4 of the portion of the Postal Universal Service Ordinance quoted at length below governs what should be done in this situation. (There may be additional requirements set forth in other regulations or in individual subcontractor license agreements; this answer is not comprehensive.)

The pertinent provisions of the Postal Act provide that:

Chapter VII Service of Documents under Public Law Regulations

§33 Service of Documents Requirement

(1) Any licensee providing letter post delivery services shall undertake to serve documents, irrespective of their weight, in accordance with the provisions of the relevant rules of procedure and legislation on the rules of service in administrative procedure. Sovereign powers commensurate with this obligation shall be vested in the licensee (entrepreneur charged with specific functions in the public interest).

(2) The Regulatory Authority shall exempt from the obligation according to (1) above a licensee thus obliged, upon its request, provided the licensee does not have a dominant position in the market. Exemption is ruled out if there is reason to believe that service of documents according to (1) above would no longer be ensured across the Federal Republic of Germany as a result. Exemption may be revoked if the licensee becomes dominant in the market or if the condition set forth in sentence 2 above becomes applicable. A request for exemption may be linked to an application for licence grant.

§35 Liability in the Performance of Service of Documents

Liable for any damage caused by neglect of duty in the performance of service of documents shall be the licensee obliged, in accordance with the regulations governing a civil service employer’s liability for damages in the territorial area. . . .

§38 Liability for Damages

Whosoever intentionally or negligently violates this Act, an ordinance having the force of law issued by virtue of this Act, any obligation arising from a licence or any other Regulatory Authority order shall, to the extent that the legal provision, obligation or order aims to protect another party, be obliged to compensate that party for any damage arising from such violation.

So, the postal service's obligations with regard to delivering mail are a matter of postal service regulations rather than being in the nature of contracts. And, if an employee or contractor of the postal service causes harm by intentionally or negligently disregarding the regulations, that employee or contractor is obligated to pay compensatory damages to someone harmed by that violation.

The primary postal service regulation in Germany, is called the Postal Universal Service Ordinance. Some pertinent provisions of this regulation state:

  1. There shall be sufficient letter boxes that customers in urban areas will not need, as a rule, to travel more than 1,000 metres to reach one. Letter boxes shall be emptied every working day and, depending on requirements, on Sundays and bank holidays, as frequently as is needed to comply with the quality standards cited in subpara 3. Letter box clearances shall be based on the dictates of business life; clearance times are to be indicated on the letter boxes. Letter boxes within the meaning of sentences 1 and 2 above may also be other receptacles that are suitable for posting letters.

  2. Of the inland letter items mailed on a working day, at least 80 per cent on average, over the year, must be delivered on the working day following the day of mailing and 95 per cent by the second working day following mailing – with the exception of items subject to the requirement of a minimum 50 items per mailing. In respect of intra-Community cross-border mail the quality standards laid down in the Annex to Directive 97/67/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 December 1997 on common rules for the development of the internal market of Community postal services and the improvement of quality of service (OJ 1998 No. L 15/14) shall apply. If the Annex to the Directive is amended the quality standards in the amended version shall apply as from the first day of the third month following publication of the amendment.

  3. Letter items shall be delivered, unless the addressee – by establishing a PO box or in any other way – has declared that he intends to collect the items. Delivery shall be made to the residence or business premises stated in the address, by placing the items in a receptacle specifically for the addressee and large enough to be provided with the items, or by handing the items over in person. Any items that cannot be delivered in accordance with sentence 2 shall be handed over to an alternative recipient, where possible, unless there are instructions to the contrary from the sender or addressee. Where the addressee’s residential or business address can only be reached with undue difficulty or in the absence of a suitable or accessible receptacle for the letter items, the addressee may be excluded from delivery. The person so affected shall be informed of this intended exclusion.

  4. There shall be a minimum of one delivery per working day.

The structure of postal service law in Germany, as a question of administrative law regarding the functioning of a government agency, rather than as a contract between the person sending a letter than the postal service, would be typical of most countries (although in many countries there would not be the added complication of providing postal services through independent contractors).

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  • This answer is wrong. – erebus Apr 1 at 21:30
  • @erebus If so, why? What is the correct answer? What authority supports your view that this is not correct? A conclusory disagreement is meaningless. – ohwilleke Apr 1 at 21:47
  • You're claiming that the PostG was an administrative law regarding the functioning of a government agency. Can you elaborate which government agency you're talking about? What used to be the Federal Post is now Deutsche Post AG. A stock corporation. I. e. a private law entity. No government agency. Although you're citing the correct law, it looks to me as if you were assuming that postal service in Germany worked the same way as in the US. – erebus Apr 1 at 21:48
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    Nope, still wrong. A postal license is a permission to run a postal business, but it doesn't make you government-like. Requirements for obtaining a postal license are very low. Some people joke that anybody who owns an old truck with an overdue technical inspection qualifies for a postal license. Postal operators aren't contracted by the government (except when the government itself sends letters). There is only one area where postal operators have government-like status, and that is process service. Yes, postal operators can serve process because they have a „Beleihung“ (not sure how to ... – erebus Apr 1 at 22:00
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    You are clearly confusing process service (which is a service offered by most postal operators) with the operation of a postal operator in general. Process service is when you get a yellow process service envelope from a court or another authority with the capability to initiate process service. This is what it looks like: lawblog.de/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/… Postal service is everything a postal operator does, including process service. – erebus Apr 1 at 23:01
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If you send a letter, you're entering into a contract with the respective postal operator. I'm not sure when the contract is entered into (it could be when you buy postage), but the contract should be deemed to be concluded at latest when the letter enters is dropped into the collection box.

The relationship between a customer and a postal operator is clearly contract law, although the whole sector is subject to regulation by the Federal Network Agency.

All postal operators (including the incumbent, Deutsche Post AG) are organized as private entities (or in rare cases, natural persons).

As a result of this, all postal operators have general conditions of business (for instance, see here for DPAG: https://www.deutschepost.de/content/dam/dpag/images/A_a/AGB/dp_agb_brief-national_2017_online.pdf or here for LVZpost: https://www.lvz-post.de/agb.html?file=files/dokumente/AGB_LVZ%20Post%20GmbH_Briefversand.pdf )

Now back to your question:

As far as I know, postal operators are supposed to deliver letters but if a letter gets lost, your rights are limited by the general conditions of business (AGB). For regular (read: unregistered) letters this means that your rights approach zero.

Now of course postal operators aren't allowed to put anything they want into their AGBs. This is Germany, everything has to be regulated. So you could try to challenge the AGB for incompatibility with either § 305 et seq. BGB, the PostG or some regulatory order issued by the BNetzA (Federal Network Agency).

For instance, you could try to claim that the full waiver of liability for lost items is surprising for customers who expect that they would be compensated for damages and that therefore the liability waiver is void under § 305c BGB.

However, I doubt that this approach would work.

So short answer is: Postal operators are supposed to deliver your letters, but if they fail, there's little you can do.

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