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The English term legal may be roughly interpreted in the following senses:

  1. supported by the law (legal rights)
  2. required by the law (legal obligation)
  3. of the administration of justice (such as in legal issues)

I am wondering how to interpret the three German terms rechtlich, rechtmäßig, gesetzlich with the preceding three entries.

Besides, do the following terms rechtlicher Vertreter, gesetzlicher Vertreter and Rechtsvertreter designate the identical notion, or is there a difference among them?

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In fact there are differences, at least if you take rechtlich, rechtmäßig and gesetzlich as technical terms.

Rechtlich is simply the generic adjective to the noun "Recht" (law), so it has the broadest meaning of these terms. It doesn't qualify the object in matters of law (e.g., lawful / illegal), but simply connects the noun it pertains to to the legal sphere.

Rechtmäßig describes something as in accordance with the law. In german colloquial language, "legal" (stressed on the a) is used more often; it's synonymous to rechtmäßig.

Gesetzlich has a narrower meaning - it says something is in accordance with the written law that was officially enacted. The background is that there are different sources of law: Gesetze (statutes / bills / acts) concerning the whole population, and e.g. Verträge (contracts) as legal agreements between individuals. In colloquial language, "gesetzlich" may also be used synonymously with "rechtmäßig".

On that background, the terms rechtlicher Vertreter, gesetzlicher Vertreter and Rechtsvertreter indicated different meanings, too.

The "rechtliche Vertreter" (representative / agent) may act for someone else in legal matters, for example negotiating contracts. It's still a very broad term, and it doesn't indicate the source for that mandate - it may be itself based on a contract, too, or on statutes / acts.

The gesetzliche Vertreter pertains to a subset of the "rechtliche Vertreter" - those agents with a "statutory" mandate. E.g. the parents are "gesetzliche Vertreter" in relation to their children according to the German Civil Law Code.

Regarding "Rechtsvertreter", this may denote a "rechtlicher Vertreter" when used in colloquial language. But usually, this is someone who has the mandate to act in behalf of someone else in a specific legal matter, e.g. an attorney who files a suit for his client. The lawyer's mandate usually is restricted to that specific matter, while the legal mandate of the "gesetzliche Vertreter" is more universal - in the case of parents, covering almost every matter relating to their children (but this depends on the children's age).

  • Dabei sag ich doch immer von mir, dass ich Wurstfinger habe … ;) Ich würd ja sagen, sie es sportsmännisch, aber den Orden hast du vor ner Stunde schon bekommen =D – Jan Jun 17 '16 at 10:17
  • Like that answer. Just for the sake of completeness: "legal" is a German word as well that fits into this context. You might want to add this. – tofro Jun 17 '16 at 11:10
  • @tofro: thank you for the suggestion - i've added it to the explanation of "rechtmäßig". – tohuwawohu Jun 17 '16 at 11:18
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The ‘odd one out’ is rechtmäßig. The suffix -mäßig is related to the word gemäß meaning according. Therefore, if something is rechtmäßig, it is according to or abiding by the law.

Sie haben rechtmäßig gehandelt. (Doesn’t really fit into any of your categories.)

Rechtlich and gesetzlich are somewhat similar terms. The difference between the two boils down to the difference between Recht und Gesetz. Recht is considered the entirety of all valid laws at any given time, so rechlicht is stemming from the entirety of laws.[1] A Gesetz is a single law, so gesetzlich has the implication of only referring to a single law or a defined subset of laws.

Both rechtlich and gesetzlich can be used for both your English meanings 1. and 2. The distinction is, once again, that gesetzlich often refers to obligations or supports stemming from single laws or small subsets thereof while rechtlich is often taken to mean the overarching entirety.

Es ist gesetzliche Pflicht (legal obligation) eines Jeden in Notsituationen Hilfe zu leisten – § 323c StGB.

Sie dazu sind rechtlich verpflichtet (legal obligation). (Something that is probably written in more than one place.)

Aus rechtlicher Sicht (legal point of view; closer to meaning 1) spricht nichts gegen Ihre Ansprüche. (overarching)

Ihr gesetzlicher Anspruch (legal right) aus dem Sozialgesetzbuch II wird anerkannt. (single law)

Anything that is related to the administration of justice is typically covered by the root Jura in German, the corresponding adjective is juristisch.


Therefore, a gesetzlicher Vertreter is a representative as specified by a single or a small subset of laws. Typically, your parents if you are a minor. A rechtlicher Vertreter, like the Rechtsvertreter is somebody who represents you in the face of the entirety of laws — a lawyer.


Notes:

[1]: Recht can also mean right or freedom as in Recht auf freie Meinungsäußerung being freedom of speech. This interpretation is typically not intended with rechtlich.

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    Donnerwetter, zwei Minuten schneller - ich muss an meinem Wurstfingerhandycap arbeiten... :-) – tohuwawohu Jun 17 '16 at 10:15
  • Thanks for your answer. I read from Duden ,,rechtliche Gleichstellung'', which, as I understand, refers to equal treatment in juridical proceedings; and I would interpret ,,rechtlich'' as ''of administration of justice'' in this case; but this interpretation seems to disagree with your statement '' Anything that is related to the administration of justice is typically covered by the root Jura in German, the corresponding adjective is juristisch.'' Could you lend a thought to this Duden-example? – Lynnyo Jun 17 '16 at 11:07
  • @Lynnyo You are correct in that case and it is one I failed to consider. However, I would still think that most occurances of the administration bit are covered by juristisch. – Jan Jun 17 '16 at 11:26

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