UPDATE: Introduction to Researching Foreign Law
By Mary Rumsey
Mary Rumsey is the Reference & Instructional Services Librarian at Willamette University College of Law. She has a B.A. degree from the University of Wisconsin, a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, and a master's degree in library and information science from Dominican University. She co-authored International and Foreign Legal Research: A Coursebook,currently in its second edition.
Published November/December 2020
Table of Contents
- 1. Introduction
- 2. General Starting Points
- 3. Starting Points for Common Subjects
- 4. Searching Library Catalogs
- 5. Subject Collections
- 6. LexisNexis and Westlaw
- 7. Periodicals
- 8. Internet Sites
- 9. Last Resorts
This guide describes basic strategies for finding the laws of countries other than the U.S, primarily in English. The emphasis is on codes and laws rather than cases. The guide will also help you find secondary materials that describe other countries' laws. It includes links to websites and to other guides.
CAUTION: Although the web has made a great deal of foreign law available, it is sometimes impossible to find current foreign law on a topic, particularly in translation. Very few foreign laws, and even fewer cases, are translated into English.
If you are unfamiliar with your target country’s legal system, you should find out what type of legal system it has. One source for this information is the clickable map found here. Most countries have civil law systems. If you are unfamiliar with civil law systems, it may be helpful to consult A Primer on the Civil-Law System, a Federal Judicial Center publication by James Apple and Robert Deyling. The comparison of common law and civil law systems in Part III is particularly useful for researchers with a common-law background.
If you are researching a subject area rather than looking for a known item (statute, code, case, etc.), start your research in secondary sources, such as treatises and law review articles. This approach can acquaint you with the terminology, concepts, and primary sources of law in your subject area.
Find out whether the country has a current, published set of laws. If you have access (through your local law school library or otherwise), the best starting point is Foreign Law Guide. This fee-based database permits searching by country and provides a brief introduction to the legal system in addition to listing current codes and laws. It also identifies available English translations and secondary sources on countries’ laws.
GlobaLex has an excellent, up-to-date collection of country guides to foreign legal materials, with links to online sources.
A subscription database called International Encyclopaedia of Laws has thorough, detailed analyses of foreign law for some countries on certain topics. Topics include contracts, sports law, torts, civil procedure, corporations and partnerships, family and succession law, and many more. Your local law library may have a subscription.
Many law libraries have country research guides on their websites. Try a web search using terms like [country name] with “legal research,” “research guide,” or “researching [country name] law.” Most guides list print and online resources.
The Law Library of Congress's Global Legal Information Catalog helps identify publications that cover foreign law on particular subjects or for particular countries. For example, if you want to find a treatise that covers Spanish investment law, search by country and topic. You will not get the text of the treatise, but you will know what treatise you need. The Law Library of Congress also offers a collection of links to available legal resources for most countries.
For a comprehensive bibliography of sources on foreign legal research divided by both topic and region, see Jean Wenger, Globalization Moved My Cheese: Or, How Do I Find Foreign Law? (2008).
This section of the guide gives useful starting points for several kinds of common foreign law questions. Note: For any of these questions, checking Foreign Law Guide is an excellent first step. If you do not have access to that resource, check Jennifer Allison, Foreign Law–Subject Law Collections on the Web (2017), Globalex.
Family law is among the most difficult foreign law topics to research. For civil law countries, you will probably be looking for a “Family Code,” or parts of a Civil Code. Many countries also have a separate code dealing with children. The State Department’s adoption page has some information on adoption for many countries.
The following are among the few books or series on foreign family law:
- International Encyclopedia of Laws-Family and Succession Law (1997-)
- The International Survey of Family Law (1994- )
- Internal and Intercountry Adoption Laws (1996-2005)
The country coverage in each of them is very selective. Law reviews sometimes include articles on aspects of family law; it is worth searching a periodical index database or a full-text database of law review articles.
In many immigration and asylum matters, a researcher needs information on the client’s country of origin and its nationality laws. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees website has a database of national laws on citizenship and nationality, many of which are in English. The database, called "REFWORLD,” is available online. Choose “Laws,” and then “National Legislation.” Then use the “Country” tab to see information for a country.
Finding current tax laws using free internet sources is difficult. Researchers should find out whether they have access to any of these subscription-based sources:
- International Bureau of Fiscal Documentation: The IBFD sells online commentaries on foreign and international tax systems. Its commentaries are detailed and widely respected.
- Many foreign tax laws are available via a high-priced database called Checkpoint, owned by Thomson Reuters.
- Tax Notes International also contains extensive information on foreign tax laws.
- Lexis.com offers access to commentary from the database Tax Havens of the World.
If you do not have access to the databases above, try looking at the website of the country’s ministry or department of revenue (or taxation). Some of these entities will provide their laws online, though not usually in English. Some foreign tax laws are available on the World Bank’s Doing Business site.
Generally, foreign intellectual property laws are among the easiest to find on the internet. The most comprehensive website is from WIPO: WIPO Lex. This site provides the text of IP laws from various countries (in some cases, WIPO Lex provides only a citation). Many laws are available in English. Many foreign intellectual property offices provide English translations of IP laws on their websites. To find these sites, use a search engine such as Google; enter the country name with terms such as patent copyright trademark office.
Some English translations of IP laws are available in print but not online. Sources to check include:
- Copyright and Related Rights Laws and Treaties (WIPO, 1987-2001)
- World Patent Law and Practice: Patent Statutes, Regulations and Treaties (Lexis, 1974- )
- World Intellectual Property Rights and Remedies (Thomson Reuters West, 1999- )
- Horwitz on World Trademark Law (Lexis, 2016- )
- International Copyright Law and Practice (Lexis, 1998- )
As with many foreign law questions, commercial law research on Western European and other industrialized countries is easier than on others. It may be impossible to find English translations of commercial laws from some countries. Some websites are potentially useful:
- The World Bank collects business-related laws in its Doing Business law library. Subjects include banking, credit, securities, construction law, bankruptcy, and more.
- Large accounting firms such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers offer some free information on country commercial law on the web. Search doing business [country name] or business guide [country name].
Some countries make English translations of their commercial laws available on government sites (e.g., trade agencies, competition law authorities). Others have the text of relevant laws in the vernacular. Use either:
- an online directory of government sites, such as Northwestern University, Foreign Governments,
- WorldLII, the World Legal Information Institute, or
- search for (ministry OR department) country name (trade OR business) using a search engine such as Google.
For commercial law, researchers may also need to consult print or online subscription sources:
- For English translations: Many foreign commercial laws are available via a high-priced database called Checkpoint, owned by Thomson Reuters.
- For law in the vernacular, a subscription database called vLex searches case law, legislation and other legal resources for close to 100 jurisdictions.
For English-language summaries:
- Digest of Commercial Laws of the World (1998- ). Rev. ed. Country-by-country arrangement of commercial laws. It also includes forms and texts of some international documents.
- Lexis has a “Doing Business in…” guide for Japan and Canada, and a guide for the UK that was “archived” in 2008, but which is still available. “Doing Business” guides generally summarize a jurisdiction’s law relating to corporations, contracts, employment, bankruptcy. Guides may also cover other topics such as intellectual property, franchising, data privacy, telecommunications, securities, etc.
Topical or country guides:
- Several companies offer fairly short, practice-oriented guides written by practitioners and aimed at lawyers from outside their jurisdiction. These guides tend to cover sophisticated commercial practice areas and focus primarily on countries with relatively large economies.
- Lexis’s Practice Advisor has topical guides to subjects such as aviation finance and leasing, judgments, banking and finance law, equity derivatives, oil and gas regulation, etc. The data is provided by Lexology, which owns the “Getting the Deal Through” series.
- Westlaw’s Practical Law has guides similar to those on Lexis’s Practice Advisor, for numerous jurisdictions.
- Bloomberg Law offers access to “Getting the Deal Through” (also available by separate subscription from Lexology), a similar series of country-specific reports on the law relating to commercial topics such as mergers, foreign investment, licensing, etc.
- ICLG.com, unlike the three vendors above, offers free content similar to the other vendors’ guides.
Other useful print and online subscription sources include the following titles, though there are many others:
- International Capital Markets and Securities Regulation (West, 1982- ).
- Bloomberg BNA’s International Securities Law (print, 1998-2001; online, 2001- present).
- Corporations and Partnerships (1991- ) (International Encyclopaedia of Laws Series).
- Company Law in Europe. (Richard Thomas ed.1992- ). Loose-leaf; country-by-country approach. For each country, covers acquisitions, joint ventures, and investment law and investment regulation.
- Competition law in Latin America: a practical guide (Kluwer, 2016)
- Competition Law in Central and Eastern Europe (Kluwer, 2014)
- Competition Law in Asia-Pacific (Kluwer, 2015)
If you have access to Foreign Law Guide, consult its extensive listing of “Materials Indexed.”
The U.S. State Department’s Judicial Assistance site offers very basic information on judicial procedures (e.g., service of process, discovery) in various countries. Read the general information under Judicial Assistance first, then check the country-specific pages for information on which treaties the country in question is a party to (Use the “Learn about a Country” box on the left side of the screen). Unfortunately, many countries are not covered. For more in-depth information, researchers should consult print sources, e.g.:
- International Litigation: A Guide to Jurisdiction, Practice and Strategy (4th ed.). (2010- )
- The Practice of International Litigation (2nd ed.) (1998- )
- Enforcement of Foreign Judgments (Louis Garb and Julian D.M. Lew eds.) (1995- )
- International Judicial Assistance: Civil and Commercial (1984- ). A new edition is scheduled for 2020.
- Practicing Law Institute and ALI-ABA continuing legal education publications sometimes address transnational litigation issues.
If you have access to a law school library or other large library, try a few different strategies for searching library catalogs:
- Known Items: If you get the name of a code from one of the sources above, try it as a title or keyword search. For example, you can find the German Civil Code through a title search: “Burgerliches Gesetzbuch.”
- Small or Developing Countries: If you're looking for materials on a relatively small country, you may want to use a simple keyword search with that country's name and the word law, e.g., Angola law. Be careful with countries that have changed their names (e.g., Swaziland/Eswatini, Myanmar/Burma); search under both names.
- Subject Searches: You may also want to try subject searches with the broad area of law followed by the country, e.g., “criminal law china.” Commonly used subjects are administrative law, civil law, civil procedure, commercial law, contracts, criminal law, criminal procedure, labor laws and legislation, real property, securities, and taxation law and legislation. Some narrower topics are included, e.g. “antitrust law France.” (Not every country will have materials indexed under every subject heading.)
- Case Reports (including translations): To look for cases, use a subject search. Enter “law reports digests etc” followed by the country name. E.g. “law report digests etc. Peru.”
- Other Sources: If you need something not covered by the subject headings above, try a keyword search, e.g. “Australia privacy.”
One very useful source of information on current foreign law is the subject collection, either in print or online. Most print subject collections describe and analyze other countries' laws; a few provide the texts. Web sources usually provide collections of foreign laws, without commentary.
For a list of online subject collections, see Jennifer Allison, Foreign Law–Subject Law Collections on the Web (2017), Globalex.
Library catalogs do not usually list all the countries included in a particular subject collection. In other words, you may find a series called International Survey of Family Law in your library catalog, but the catalog will not list the countries that are covered. Use the Foreign Law Guide or the Law Library of Congress’s Global Legal Information Catalog search engine to find publications that cover your target country.
Both Lexis and Westlaw provide European Union cases and legislation. Databases, particularly foreign law databases, come and go from Lexis and Westlaw. It's always worth checking whether these companies have added new databases. The following information was correct as of July 2020, and language of materials is English unless otherwise noted:
Lexis.com provides databases for several countries, including the following: Argentina (Boletin Oficial (official gazette)--Spanish); Australia (federal and state cases, federal and state legislation); Canada (cases, laws, regulations); China (selected laws, regulations, and other documents, including some cases); England and Wales (cases, laws, regulations); European Union (cases, laws—enter EU legislation or EU cases from first screen); Hong Kong (cases, laws); India (national and state laws); Ireland (cases); Malaysia (cases, laws); Mexico (cases from the Corte Suprema in Spanish up to 2004); New Zealand (cases, laws); Northern Ireland (cases); Russia (a few laws); Scotland (cases, laws, regulations); South Africa (Constitutional Court cases, laws to 2014); UK (cases, laws, regulations).
Westlaw provides databases the following countries: Australia (cases), Barbados (laws); Canada (cases, laws, regulations, court filings; provincial statutes, including Quebec statutes in French and English); Cayman Islands (laws, regulations); European Union (cases, laws); France (civil and commercial codes in English); Hong Kong (cases, some cases in Chinese with skeletal info in English; laws); Korea (cases, laws); Scotland (cases, laws, regulations); and the UK (cases, laws, regulations).
Sometimes periodicals are the only source for the text of foreign legislation, and they are often a good source for descriptions of foreign law. Certain subscription databases can be helpful.
- The two main Anglo-American periodical indexes, Index to Legal Periodicals (ILP) and LegalTrac, are worth checking, because articles sometimes provide comparisons with foreign legal systems. Both indexes can be accessed electronically at large law libraries.
- The Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals (IFLP) is also available at large law libraries. Most periodicals indexed in this database are in languages other than English, but many articles have English abstracts. Moreover, because the index terms are in English, researchers can identify relevant articles even if they do not speak the language of the articles.
- Westlaw and Lexis databases of full-text law review articles can be an excellent tool for finding citations to foreign laws, cases, and other documents.
The internet has become an increasingly important source for foreign law. The amount of information available varies widely among jurisdictions, however, and the quality and currentness of information also varies widely. This section lists several key sources, but many of these sources link to additional sites.
- World Legal Information Institute (WorldLII): WorldLII provides a single search facility for databases of court decisions, laws, and regulations from numerous countries (mostly English-speaking). This site is a good first stop in a search for law online. The "Countries" page is arranged by jurisdiction.
- GlobaLex: GlobaLex provides an excellent, up-to-date collection of country guides to foreign legal materials, written by legal research experts. The guides refer to print and online sources. GlobaLex also contains a growing collection of international law guides.
- The Guide to Law Online, prepared by the U.S. Law Library of Congress, is a free annotated guide to sources of information worldwide on government and law.
- New York University's Foreign Law by Jurisdiction: Points to various resources, some arranged by jurisdiction. (Note: Some listed resources are open only to NYU students; some are fee-based.)
- Government Gazettes Online: This site attempts to link to all online government gazettes and to describe their characteristics. A description of the contents and coverage are included for each gazette.
- GlobaLex, Comparative Civil Procedure: A Guide to Primary and Secondary Sources: Links to sources of civil codes, cases, etc. on the web.
- University of Texas School of Law, Foreign Law Translations:
Translations of selected French, German, and Israeli statutes and cases (only cases for Israel).
Generally, you will get better results from the sources below if you can explain what other resources you have already tried.
Embassies: Foreign embassies vary widely in their resources and willingness to help, but some can provide laws in the vernacular.
Chambers of Commerce: some Chambers of Commerce publish booklets of local laws. Try a web search for [country name] chamber commerce. See also World Chambers Network - this site includes a directory of chambers of commerce.
U.S. Government Agencies:
- U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
- Export-Import Bank of the United States
- U.S. International Trade Commission, USITC
- Office of the United States Trade Representative, USTR
- U.S. Department of Commerce