Legal definition

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A legal definition is the definition of a legal term in a law . In this context, the legislature itself defines in a specific legal regulation by defining it in the legal text how an indefinite legal term is to be understood.

Content and scope

The scope and content are determined for the purposes of the law in which the legal definition is contained. In legal terms, this legal definition can deliberately be made narrow, which limits the applicability of the law concerned in everyday life from the outset. A correspondingly broad definition ensures that the relevant provisions are fully applicable. A legal definition can deliberately define a term differently than is customary in general usage and thus expand or restrict the scope of the law. Due to their binding effect on the courts, legal definitions also serve to control them and are thus an expression of the principle of separation of powers .

Narrow and broad legal definition

The legislature uses the means of legal definition quite often. He runs the risk of not including all possible use cases if the definition is too narrow, although he would have wanted to cover them ( legal loophole ) or, if the definition is too broad, also to cover those cases that should not be covered by the law ( deadweight effect ) .

In the case of many terms that are worthy of definition, he deliberately avoids a legal definition, because their content and scope can change over time and a legal regulation would no longer be in accordance with current legal practice. In the case of the 1965 Stock Corporation Act, for example, the legislature refrained from defining the term “ company ” because it seemed too complicated and associated with great practical difficulties. With some legal definitions, conceptual features that everyday language takes for granted are again not adopted. The term “ building ” is defined in the state building codes of the federal states and, when listing the various conceptual features, leaves open whether a building must also have windows or walls. According to the building regulations, buildings are "independently usable, roofed structures that can be entered by people and are suitable or intended to serve the protection of people, animals or things" (§ 2 Paragraph 2 LandesbauO NRW). Buildings are houses and other structures, including underground garages. It does not depend on the enclosure by walls; the roofing alone is sufficient. The fact that windows and walls have not become part of the legal definition is certainly not a legal loophole. Rather, the term building was not defined in concrete terms, in order not to exclude later structural development from the outset by defining the term building too narrowly.

Some legal definitions deal with linguistically less subtle terms in order to limit the applicability of the law to certain cases. In Section 3 (1) of the Utility Model Act, the word “new” is defined as not belonging to the state of the art.

Many frequently used terms that are of considerable legal importance were not specified in more detail by a legal definition because the legislature assumes that they are known (for example the term “ interest ”). In these cases it is deliberately left to case law to provide an interpretation. With the concept of interest, this has already been done by the Reichsgericht and later the Federal Supreme Court .

Scientific theory of definition

Legal definitions are based on the knowledge of the theory of definitions and therefore use so-called explicit definitions .

  • This includes conjunctive definitions such as "taking away is the breaking of something strange and the establishment of a new custody of a thing". These definitions must have fewer features, the larger their area of ​​application ( extension ) is to be. On the contrary, if many features are incorporated, their area of ​​application is reduced accordingly.
  • Disjunctive definitions , which work with enumerations and are intended to cover all conceivable applications, are also explicit : "Securities are stocks, shares, coupons, interim coupons, interest coupons, dividend coupons and renewal coupons, bearer bonds or bonds transferable by endorsement, and other securities, if these." are reasonable, with the exception of banknotes and paper money. Securities within the meaning of this law are also registered bonds insofar as they are issued in the name of a securities depository bank ”( Section 1 (1 ) DepotG ). In particular, they can have the disadvantage that they do not enumerate features that modern right-hand traffic only develops later. Then the courts must clarify by interpretation whether the legal definition can also be applied to newer facts. However, if the legislature has indicated by means of an enumerative list that it does not allow the scope of application to be extended to similar, unmentioned cases ( Latin enumeratio ergo limitatio ), the courts are bound by this.


Due to the relativity of legal terms , a legal definition in one law does not necessarily apply to other laws. For these other laws, the meaning of the term must be further figured out through interpretation . If this legal definition is also to apply to other laws, this must be expressly mentioned in the regulations concerned. The Depotgesetz used - as mentioned - in § 1 , Section 1 Custody Act an exhaustive list that the scope of the term ". Securities sets". This law is a banking supervisory law that only applies in the relationship between the credit institutions and the BAFin / Deutsche Bundesbank . Section 4 (24) no. 1 AWG expressly refers to the legal definition of the DepotG . By reference, the legal definition of the DepotG is also used in the scope of the Foreign Trade Act.

While in older laws, such as the German Civil Code, legal definitions were used more sparingly and are woven in when a term is used for the first time, it is common in newer laws to prefix a catalog of definitions. The latter legislative technique is the result of European and Anglo-American influences ( case law ) and has only been observed since the end of the 20th century.


The use of a legal definition means that everyone involved in legal transactions can orientate themselves on the characteristics prescribed by the legislature and derive legal consequences from them. If different facts have to be subsumed under the same legal term , the same legal consequence applies in all cases. Through the content and scope of the legal definition, the legislature usually also determines for which circumstances the legal consequences should occur and for which not.


In legal terms, a legal definition can usually be recognized by the fact that the defined term in brackets follows or precedes the legal definition. An example from German civil law :

"The right to demand action or omission from another (claim) is subject to the statute of limitations."

The formulation “the right to demand that someone do something or not do something” is the legal definition of the legal term claim .

Individual evidence

  1. Government draft on § 15 AktG by Bruno Kropff, Aktiengesetz 1965 , p. 27
  2. ^ BGH NJW 1982, 756
  3. Munich Commentary on the BGB, Bernd von Maydell, 3rd edition 1993, § 246 Rn. 1
  4. ^ Karl Lackner / Kristian Kühl : Criminal Code , 2014, § 242 Rn. 8th
  5. This is not a legal definition, as “removal” has been defined by legal literature as a feature of the legal definition of the term theft .
  6. ^ Ingeborguppe : criminal law dogmatic analyzes , 2006, p. 85 .