The classification of property in English law/Sachenrechtskategorien im englischen Recht


Real property is land. It’s called real because a person dispossessed of land used to be able to claim the land itself (res: thing – the Germans have a term dinglich – ‘thingly’ – that is close to this meaning). This means the same as the immovables /immoveables in Roman law systems: Immobilien, Liegenschaften, Grundstücke.

Personal property is everything apart from ‘ownership’ of land (actually you can’t own land in England and Wales, because it belongs to the Crown, but let’s forget about that for the moment). It doesn’t mean movables, therefore – it’s a wider term. It breaks down into:

Chattels real: leasehold interests in land – called real because they have to do with land, called chattels because they aren’t land.

Chattels personal: a superordinate term for:

Choses in action: debts, cheques, claims, patents. These are forms of property you may have to take legal action to enforce.

Choses in possession: physical movable things, bewegliche Sachen in German.

Were I to return to the interesting question still pursued at Language Log as to when and if a fish changes its status without being smoked, and what possessed the Irish Senate to consider this, I would need to start with this diagram. Unfortunately I still have to do some work today.

It was hard work doing this diagram. The slightly grey background of the top three fields was not intentional.

4 thoughts on “The classification of property in English law/Sachenrechtskategorien im englischen Recht

  1. Outstandingly clear and very helpful indeed, thank you!

    As usual I have a point that results from taking a business writing standpoint on things: ‘Movable property’ is the more intuitive term for ‘bewegliche Sachen’, and ‘choses in possession’ is really out of the question in writing for the public. In a more formal setting, though, like a translation of a business contract, is ‘choses in possession’ the only correct term or would ‘movable property’ still do?

  2. I wouldn’t use these to translate into English, I should have said, not even in a business context. I would use movable property, as you say. Actually the terms on this diagram are not all frequently encountered. Sometimes you see ‘choses in action’. The real property/personal property distinction comes up in wills, where even now you get people devising real property and bequeathing personal property – ‘give’ would work for both. Technically you can’t ‘bequeath’ a house, but in German law a house can be a ‘Vermächtnis’. All very confusing. And if people make different arrangements for their real and personal property, you have to be clear what is involved.

  3. Thanks again. That’s clearer than you think! Luckily no-one ever asks me to translate any wills so I have little chance of breaking my personal pledge of not having anything to do with them.

  4. Congrats on the diagram! I agree again with your analysis.

    I’ve sometimes – maybe misguidedly – advised FRE & SPA into ENG translators to use ‘choses in action’ for les actions/acciones in a Will etc. where it’s unclear – even from the order in a list – whether referring to assignable legal REMEDIES or co. SHARES, both of which that – like copyright – are ‘assignable’ in writing in those systems.

    Confusing terminology, as co. shares as physical certificates require a ‘proper instrument of transfer’ in Eng. law.

    I’m glad you excluded from the diagram the Civil/Scots law term fungibles that Italian translators have insisted to me is used in AAL – Anglo-Am. law., despite my doubts about the ‘fungibility’ of the investments or goods they are writing about.

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