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

(Previously updated in December 2006, January 2008, March 2010, July/August 2012, July/August 2014, and July/August 2016)

See the Archive Version!

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 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.

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.

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).

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. If you do not have access to that resource, check Jennifer Allison, Foreign Law–Subject Law Collections on the Web (2017), Globalex.

3.1. Family Law

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:

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.

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 “Laws,” and then “National Legislation.” Then use the “Country” tab to see information for a country.

3.3. Tax

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:

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.

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: 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:

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 websites 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:

For English-language summaries:

Topical or country guides:

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

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.:

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 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.

6. LexisNexis and Westlaw

Note: Lexis and Westlaw are available to most US 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 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).

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.


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. 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:

Foreign Lawyers: