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

(Previously updated in Dec. 2006, Jan. 2008, March 2010, July/Aug. 2012, and July/Aug. 2014)

See the Archive Version!

 

Table of Contents

1.      Introduction

2.     General Starting Points

3.     Starting Points for Common Subjects

3.1      Family Law

3.2     Immigration/Citizenship

3.3     Tax

3.4     Intellectual Property

3.5     Commercial law

3.6     Transnational litigation

4.     Searching Library Catalogs

5.     Subject Collections

6.     Lexis and Westlaw

7.     Periodicals

8.     Internet Sites

9.     Last Resorts

 

1.     Introduction

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.

 

2.     General Starting Points

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?

 

3.     Starting Points for Common Subjects

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.

 

3.1 Family Law

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:

 

 

The coverage in each of them is very selective.

 

3.2 Immigration/Citizenship

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.

 

3.3  Tax

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:

 

 

3.4  Intellectual Property

Generally, foreign intellectual property laws are among the easiest to find on the internet.  The most comprehensive website is from WIPO:

 

 

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- )  

 

3.5  Commercial Law

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:

 

 

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:

 

 

For commercial law, researchers may also need to consult print or online subscription sources:

 

 

Many foreign tax laws are available via a high-priced database called Checkpoint, owned by Thomson Reuters. 

 

 

A subscription database called vLex searches case law, legislation and other legal resources for close to 100 jurisdictions.

 

 

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:

 

 

If you have access to Foreign Law Guide, consult its extensive listing of “Materials Indexed.”

 

3.6  Transnational Litigation

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.:

 

 

4.     Searching Library Catalogs

If you have access to a law school library or other large library, try a few different strategies for searching library catalogs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

5.     Subject Collections

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.

 

6.     LexisNexis and Westlaw

Note:  Lexis and Westlaw are available to most law schools’ faculty, students, and library staff.

 

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). 

 

7.     Periodicals

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.

 

Indexes

 

 

8.    Internet Sites

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.

 

9.     Last Resorts

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.

 

 

U.S. Government Agencies:

 

 

Foreign Lawyers: