Basic Guide to Researching Foreign Law


by Mary Rumsey


Mary Rumsey is the Foreign, Comparative & International Law Librarian at the University of Minnesota.  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. 


Published September 2005

Read the Update!


Table of Contents

I.          Introduction

II.        General Starting Points

III.      Starting Points for Common Subjects

A.    Family law

B.    Immigration/Citizenship

C.     Tax

D.    Intellectual property

E.    Commercial law

F.     Transnational litigation

IV.      Searching Library Catalogs

V.        Subject Collections

VI.      LexisNexis and Westlaw

VII.    Periodicals

VIII.  Internet sites

IX.      Last resorts



I.     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 internet 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 at


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.



II.   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.


A.    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 Thomas H. Reynolds & Arturo A. Flores, Foreign Law:  Current Sources of Codes and Basic Legislation in Jurisdictions of the World.  This multi-volume set is arranged 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.  Its internet equivalent is Foreign Law Guide: Current Sources of Codes and Basic Legislation in Jurisdictions of the World (by subscription).


B.    If your question is fairly simple, try Martindale-Hubbell International Law Digest.  This publication, updated yearly, provides short summaries of 80 countries' laws under standard topics (e.g., Wills), including the names of some statutes and codes.


Although the information in the International Law Digest is brief, getting the name of a statute allows you to search for the full text on the web.  When citations are included, this allows you to make an interlibrary loan or document delivery request.


C.     GlobaLex has an excellent, up-to-date collection of country guides to foreign legal materials.


D.    The LLRX website also has a large collection of country guides to foreign legal materials. 


E.    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 internet resources.


F.     The Law Library of Congress's Multinational Collections Database helps identify publications that cover foreign law on particular subjects or for particular countries. 



III.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 Reynolds & Flores Foreign Law Guide is an excellent first step.


A.    Family law


Family law is among the most difficult foreign law topics to research.


Martindale Hubbell’s International Law Digest has brief summaries of marriage, adoption, marriage dissolution, and related law for about 80 countries.


The Annual Review of Population Law has a searchable database with English-language citations to foreign laws, cases, codes, and other documents.  The database includes divorce, child support, adoption, and other topics that may be helpful (choose “Search database.” Do not choose “Laws by Country,” since this link brings up only a few documents.)


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 for a few countries:


The State Department’s adoption page is found here.


Among the few books or series on foreign family law are the following:

·       International Encyclopaedia 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.


B.    Immigration/citizenship


In many immigration and asylum matters, a researcher needs information on the client’s country of origin and its nationality laws.  A few online sources may be helpful:


·       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, sometimes called "REFWORLD,” is available online.  Select Research and Evaluation.

·       U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Citizenship Laws of the World (summaries only).


C.    Tax


Finding current tax laws on free internet sources is difficult.  Researchers should find out whether they have access to either of these two 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.


·       The print publication Tax Laws of the World [country name] for their target country (e.g., Tax Laws of the World, Finland).  This loose-leaf series provides English-language translations of foreign tax codes and laws, though its versions are often several years out of date. This service moved to an online fee-based database under a new name, Foreign Tax Law, recently taken over by RIA.


D.    Intellectual property


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


Collection of Laws for Electronic Access (CLEA).  This site provides text of IP laws from various countries.  Caution:  Many countries’ IP laws have been recently, or soon will be, amended to comply with various instruments such as TRIPS, the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Agreement (e.g., China, on its accession to the WTO); the EU Copyright Directive, 2001/29/EC (e.g., the UK); and U.S. bilateral trade agreements (e.g., Australia).


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 patent copyright trademark office.


National Copyright Legislation.  This UNESCO site provides full-text laws from some member states.  Includes some English versions; some laws are in the vernacular, particularly French and Spanish.


Some English translations of IP laws are available in print but not online.  Sources to check include:

·       Copyright and Related Rights Laws and Treaties (1987-2001).

·       World Patent Law and Practice (M. Bender, 1974- )

·       World Intellectual Property Rights and Remedies (1999- )  


E.    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 internet sites are potentially useful:


·       Global Banking Law Database.  Provided by the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund.  Contains full texts of laws in English translation on banking and many related financial and corporate law topics.  Has at least some laws for 39 jurisdictions.

·       Law Reform in Transition States.  English translations or vernacular versions of selected business and commercial laws, not updated after August 2004.  Countries include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.  Some civil codes; some Russian and German translations.

·       Antitrust/competition laws are collected on the International Bar Association’s Global Competition Forum. Laws are in English or the vernacular.

·       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]

·       Country Commercial Guides (Commerce Department).  Business climate information along with skeletal information about relevant legal constraints.  Choose "market research," then select country.

·       World Bank, Global Insolvency Law Database.


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 University of Michigan, Foreign Governments, Comprehensive Web Site Listings

·       WorldLII,

·       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--


·       Commercial Laws of the World (1976- ) (loose-leaf).  Full translations, but remember that the underlying code or law may have been amended after the translation.


                  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.  


Other useful print and online subscription sources include the following titles, though there are many others:


·       International Capital Markets and Securities Regulation (1982- ). 

·       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. A chapter on European Communities law on harmonization of company law in the member states is included. 


F.    Transnational litigation


A good starting point for U.S. researchers is often the State Department’s Judicial Assistance site.


Martindale-Hubbell’s International Law Digest also provides brief information about service of process, discovery, and judgments (you must register).


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- ) 

·       Practising Law Institute and ALI-ABA continuing legal education publications sometimes address transnational litigation issues. 



IV. 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.


A.    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.


B.    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.


C.     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.)


D.    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.


E.    Other sources

If you need something not covered by the subject headings above, try a keyword search: e.g., Australia privacy. 



V.    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 useful list of subject collections on the web, see the GlobaLex guide by Charlotte Bynum, Foreign Law: Subject Law Collections on the Web.


For a partial list of print subject collections, see Researching Foreign Law (under “Subject Collections”).  Library catalogs do not usually list all the countries included in a particular subject collection.  Use the Foreign Law Guide or the Law Library of Congress’s Multinational Collections search engine to find publications that cover your target country.



VI. LexisNexis and Westlaw


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


Both LexisNexis and Westlaw provide European Union cases and legislation.  For both services, currentness is sometimes a problem; pay attention to clues about when the database was last updated.  (On Westlaw, check the green lowercase "i."  On Lexis, click on the lowercase "i.")  


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 2005, and language of materials is English unless otherwise noted:


Lexis provides databases for several countries, including the following: Argentina (codes and laws, in Spanish), Australia (cases), Brunei (cases), Canada (cases, laws, regulations), China (some cases, some laws), England and Wales (cases, laws, regulations), EU (cases, laws, regulations, and other materials, mostly in English), France (laws, in French), Germany (some laws, in German), Hong Kong (cases, laws), Hungary (laws, 1990-2002), India (cases), Ireland (cases), Italy (selected laws, 1991-, some cases; all in Italian), Malaysia (cases; laws through July 2004), Mexico (cases; civil and penal codes and laws, all in Spanish), New Zealand (cases), Northern Ireland (cases), Russia (selected business laws, older laws), Scotland (cases, regulations), Singapore (cases), South Africa (cases, laws), UK (cases, laws, regulations).


Westlaw provides databases for fewer countries, including the following:  Australia (cases, laws, financial regulations), Hong Kong (cases, laws), Bermuda and the Cayman Islands (insurance statutes and regulations),  Canada (cases, laws, regulations), EU (cases, laws, and other materials, mostly in English), Hong Kong (cases), Mexico (laws, in Spanish), Russia (laws from 1987 - 1996), UK (cases, laws, regulations).  Westlaw also has English-language environmental laws and arbitration laws for some countries.



VII.        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.



·       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 on Westlaw and at large law libraries.

·       The Legal Journals Index, also available via Westlaw and as a separate subscription database, 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 on Westlaw and 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 LexisNexis 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. 



VIII.     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.


·       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); and PacLII.  This site is a good first stop in a search for law online.  The "Catalog" page is arranged by country.

·       GlobaLexGlobaLex provides an excellent, up-to-date collection of country guides to foreign legal materials, written by legal research experts.  The guides refer to print sources, especially for English-language versions. Also contains a growing collection of international law guides.

·       LLRX (Law Librarians' Resource Exchange), Comparative & Foreign Law GuidesCollection 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.

·       WashLaw Web-Foreign and International Law.  Searchable index of foreign and international law resources.  Each country for which any information is available is indexed, with a list of available resources under the country name.  Most links have at least a brief annotation and tell whether the site's information is in English.

·       FindLaw-International Law -Countries.  List of links by country, similar to the WashLaw Web, above.

·       The Guide to Law Online prepared by the U.S. Law Library of Congress for the Global Legal Information Network (GLIN), is an annotated guide to sources of information worldwide on government and law available online without charge.

·       Harvard Law Library, Guide to Researching Foreign Law on the Internet, from Harvard Law School Library.  The “Foreign Law” link under “Getting Started” leads to an alphabetically-arranged list of resources by country.

·       Social Science Information Gateway (SOSIG), Individual Jurisdictions.  Nicely organized and labeled, this site has an alphabetical listing of countries with law links.

·       New York University's Guide to Foreign and International Legal Databases- Foreign Databases- By Jurisdiction.  The law librarian responsible for this site, Mirela Roznovschi, has written the leading guide to evaluating the reliability of foreign legal databases on the web.  Thus, you can rely on the sources to which this guide links, but there are fewer than in other guides.  (Note:  Some listed resources are open only to NYU students; some are fee-based.)

·       GLIN (Global Legal Information Network). GLIN is a project to put reliable versions of member countries' laws on the web.  Most member nations are smaller or less-wealthy countries, but the US, UK and Spain are represented.  The goal is to provide English abstracts along with original-language text.  The abstracts are freely searchable.  For some countries, full-text laws are available (in the vernacular).  An online thesaurus lets you find likely terms before starting your search, thereby increasing your chance of finding the right material.  Many of the citations in GLIN are to official government gazettes; see Government Gazettes Online, next entry.

·       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.

·World Law Guide.  Click on “Legislation.”  Links to a variety of national laws, arranged by country.

·       Swiss Institute of Comparative Law.  Click on “droit en ligne.”  Select a country for links to legislation and case law.  Particularly useful when searching for foreign cases online.

·       Global Courts.  Links to supreme court decisions from over 100 countries. Text is in the vernacular.

·       New York University Law Library, Civil Codes, Civil Procedure and  Jurisprudence.  Links to sources of civil codes, cases, etc. on the web.



IX. Last resorts


Generally, you will get better results from the sources below if you can explain what other resources you have already tried.



Foreign embassies vary widely in their resources and willingness to help, but some can provide laws in the vernacular.

·       Foreign Embassies of Washington D.C 

·       University of Michigan, Foreign Governments, Comprehensive Web Site Listings.  Includes embassies.


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

·       Bureau of Export Administration

·       U.S. International Trade Administration


Directories of Organizations: 

·       See Lyonette Louis-Jacques, Directories


Foreign lawyers:

·       Martindale Hubbell's Lawyer Locator (select Lawyer Locator) lets you search by country of practice.