I recently read about the plain meaning rule that seems to be a principle in the application of English laws.

I would like to know whether a similar principle is either codified or known as a common principle in the interpretation of laws in Germany.

On the one hand, the rule sounds like a sane basis for interpreting a text that is not accompanied by explicit definitions.

On the other hand, the Wikipedia article is not linked to any German equivalent (for what it's worth, it is not linked to any equivalent in any other language). Also, cases come to mind where German courts did not seem to apply an "ordinary meaning"1. It is well possible, however, that such cases are exceptions (that became well-known precisely due to their exceptional character) rather than the "normal procedure".

If this concept does exist in German law, is there any specific term normally used to refer to this concept?

1: I mean instances like the infamous ruling on the duration of military service vs. alternative civilian service. "The duration of X must not exceed the duration of Y." was interpreted in such a way that "duration" refers to the effort/stress level, which must be equal, while X may very well last for a longer time than Y. Or, alternatively, that Y might theoretically imply additional phases of related activity in the future, which are counted towards the duration that X is compared to. (link only in German)

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    I can't cite to sources that say so, but the answer is that yes it does, but that in German law there are far more defined terms and terms are frequently defined to have a single legal meaning everywhere that they appear, and further German statutes have much more high level structure and interconnectedness that common law statutes do, and those constraints can force unconventional readings in order to make them reconcile. There are also coordinating forces (mostly legal treatises) that can cause the constraints to be resolved consistently across multiple courts and statutes. – ohwilleke May 5 '18 at 3:05


The four classical rules of construction, when it comes to legal terms not explicitly defined are (source):

  • Grammatical interpretation: using the literal meaning of the statutory text.
  • Historical interpretation: using the legislative history, to reveal the intent of the legislator.
  • Systematic interpretation: considering the context of provisions, if only by acknowledging in which chapter a provision is listed.
  • Teleological interpretation: considering the purpose of the statute is considered, as it appears from legislative history, or other observations.

(This list is not understood to be exhaustive; for example verfassungskonforme Auslegung means a preference to construct a statute in a way that is consistent with constitutional law, akin to the constitutional avoidance principle in US law.)

The first one certainly is a principle "similar to the plain meaning rule." Searchable keywords are grammatische Auslegung and Auslegung nach dem Wortsinne.

*) But the context is different when you're comparing German jurisprudence to its equivalents in common law countries. See for example @ohwilleke's comment.

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