UPDATE: Basic Guide 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 July/August 2016
Table of Contents
3.1 Family Law
3.5 Commercial law
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 is an increasingly important source of foreign law, 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. More general advice on starting a foreign law research project is available from Mirela Roznovschi, Finding Foreign (non-U.S.) Law…in English, if possible.
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. Also, it identifies available English translations.
GlobaLex has an excellent, up-to-date collection of country guides to foreign legal materials.
The LLRX website also has a large collection of country guides to foreign legal materials. Generally, these are not as up-to-date at those on GlobaLex.
A subscription database called International Encyclopaedia of Laws has thorough, detailed analysis of foreign law for some countries, on some topics. 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?
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.
Family law is among the most difficult foreign law topics to research.
The Annual Review of Population Law has a collection of English-language citations to foreign laws, cases, codes, and other documents, including English translations of text in some cases. The database includes a few topics that may be helpful. The database is no longer searchable; click on various topics to see what countries are listed. (Do not choose “Laws by Country,” since this link brings up only a few documents.) Caution: this database has not been updated since 2009.
The U.S. State Department has information about some countries’ marriage laws online, but its focus is on U.S. citizens marrying foreign citizens. The State Department also has information on foreign divorce law. The State Department’s adoption page is found here.
Among the few books or series on foreign family law are the following:
- International Encyclopedia of Laws-Family and Succession Law (1997-)
- The International Survey of Family Law (1994- )
- Internal and Intercountry Adoption Laws (1996- )
The coverage in each of them is very selective.
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 Advanced Search, and then use drop-down menus to specify country, then “National Legislation” (under “Document type”). Alternatively, choose browse by topic and then click on Citizenship/Nationality Laws.
Finding current tax laws on 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 and print commentaries on foreign and international tax systems. Its commentaries are detailed and widely respected. Recently, it has shifted away from print publishing.
- 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 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 text of IP laws from various countries (in some cases, WIPO Lex provides only a citation). Many laws are available in English.
- National Copyright Legislation. This UNESCO site provides full-text laws from some member states. It includes some English versions; some laws are in the vernacular, particularly French and Spanish. It is usually not as complete as WIPO Lex, but occasionally has a law that WIPO Lex does not.
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:
o Copyright and Related Rights Laws and Treaties (1987-2001).
o World Patent Law and Practice (M. Bender, 1974- )
o World Intellectual Property Rights and Remedies (1999- )
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 web sites are potentially useful:
- Antitrust/competition laws are collected in English or the vernacular by UNCTAD here.
- The World Bank also collects business-related laws in its Doing Business law library. Subjects include banking, credit, securities, 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].
- InterNet Bankruptcy Library, International Laws on Bankruptcy and Insolvency, has a few foreign laws on bankruptcy/insolvency.
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,
- 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 tax 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. (1966-1998) (loose-leaf). Country-by-country arrangement of commercial laws. Also includes forms and texts of some international documents.
Digest of Commercial Laws of the World (1998- ). Rev. ed. Revised edition of the set above.
Westlaw and Lexis Advance have “Doing Business in…” or “Business Laws of…” guides for several jurisdictions. These generally summarize foreign law relating to corporations, contracts, employment, bankruptcy, and may cover other topics such as intellectual property, franchising, securities, etc. On Lexis, look under Secondary Materials, then International Law. On Westlaw, choose International Materials, then a jurisdiction or International Treatises.
Bloomberg Law offers access to “Getting the Deal Through” (also available by separate subscription), a series of country-specific reports on the law relating to commercial topics such as mergers, foreign investment, licensing, etc. These are practice-oriented and often do not cite the applicable laws.
Other useful print and online subscription sources include the following titles, though there are many others:
- International Capital Markets and Securities Regulation (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.
If you have access to Foreign Law Guide, consult its extensive listing of “Materials Indexed.”
A good starting point for U.S. researchers is often the State Department’s Judicial Assistance site. Check the country-specific pages for information on service of process, taking of evidence, and enforcement of judgments. 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 (3rd ed.). (1998- )
- The Practice of International Litigation (2nd ed.) (1998- )
- Enforcement of Foreign Judgments (Dennis Campbell ed.) (1997.)
- Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Worldwide, 2nd ed. (1993)
- International Judicial Assistance: Civil and Commercial (1984- )
- 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., Myanmar/Burma, Burkina Faso/Upper Volta); 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 reports 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 partial list of subject collections, see Researching Foreign Law (under “Subject Collections”). 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 May 2016, and language of materials is English unless otherwise noted:
Lexis.com provides databases for several countries, including the following: Argentina (codes and laws, in Spanish, but only through 1997); Australia (federal and state cases); Brunei (cases); Canada (cases, laws, regulations); China (selected laws and other documents, including a few cases); England and Wales (cases, laws, regulations); EU (cases, laws, regulations, and other materials); France (Official Journal, in French, 2000-2008); Hong Kong (cases, laws); India (cases, ending in 2004 or 2001 depending on the court); Ireland (cases); Israel (1948-2009); Malaysia (cases, laws); Mexico (cases in Spanish, codes and laws in Spanish; official gazette, in Spanish); New Zealand (cases); Northern Ireland (cases); Russia (civil code in English through 2013, older laws in English, ending 1997); Scotland (cases, laws, regulations); South Africa (Constitutional Court cases, some tax cases to 1998, laws); UK (cases, laws, regulations). This material is supposed to move to Lexis Advance by the end of 2016.
Westlaw provides databases for fewer countries, including the following: Australia (cases), Barbados (insurance laws); Canada (cases, laws, regulations, court filings; provincial statutes, including Quebec statutes in French and English); Hong Kong (cases, laws); Cayman Islands (laws, regulations); EU (cases, laws, and other materials, mostly in English); France (civil and commercial codes, in English); Hong Kong (cases, legislation); Korea (cases, laws); 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 Legal Journals Index, also available via Westlaw, indexes UK, Irish, and European legal periodicals. Its coverage of EU issues often picks up articles not indexed in ILP or LegalTrac.
- 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, if you have access.
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 located on the following Legal Information Institutes: AustLII; BAILII; CanLII; HKLII; LII (Cornell); IndLII, PacLII, and SAFLII. This site is a good first stop in a search for law online. The "Catalog" page is arranged by country.
- 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.
- LLRX (Law Librarians' Resource Exchange), Comparative & Foreign Law Guides. Collection of guides written by legal research experts. Doesn't contain actual text of laws, but will point to good online sources where available. Many of the guides also refer to print sources, especially for English-language versions. Note that many of these guides have been superseded by more recent ones on the GlobaLex site.
- 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.
- 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.
o 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.)
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.
- 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
- U.S. International Trade Administration