An Act or a law?

Perennial query (from a mailing list): Why is it OK to translate Bundeswahlgesetz as Federal Electoral Law while Umweltinformationsgesetz is Environmental Information Act?

(Actually, you can get the Federal Elections Act online now at

The superficial answer is that some people insist on translating Gesetz in the name of an Act as law.

Act is the better term in both British and US contexts. Like some British lawyers, I capitalize Act in this sense, even outside titles, but this isn’t universal.

One argument given is that the procedure for passing a common-law Act is different from that for passing a German Gesetz. I don’t think the argument holds water.

A possible reason is that foreign lawyers are more familiar with the word law. That applies in other jurisdictions too, not just German. The word Act possibly frightens them off. Loi in French sounds like law and I gather Scandinavian languages have the same situation (lag/lov).

But law is just not the normal term in English.

I would use laws as a superordinate term for primary legislation (Acts/statutes) and secondary/delegated legislation (statutory orders). But legislation might work instead.

One thought on “An Act or a law?

  1. There is a difference between the law and a Law, as we know some UK and Irish legal clients insist on in preference to an Act. I like your statutes solution. Problem is the very same clients, commissioning translations into British English, use said label in the plural as shorthand to refer to Articles of Association or Partnership for statuts in French, estatutos in Spanish and even for Satzung and Gesellschaftsvertrag in German.

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