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Foreign and Comparative Law Research Guide

Foreign law is the national (also referred to as domestic or internal) law of any country other than the United States and research methods will vary depending on the country you are researching. This guide provides starting points.

Introduction

What is foreign law? It is the national (also referred to as domestic or internal) law of any country other than the United States and usually refers to constitutions, legislation, and cases. Foreign law has no effect outside the foreign jurisdiction, but it may regulate foreign entities within state boundaries.Comparative law is "the study of the similarities and differences between the laws of two or more countries, or between two or more legal systems. Comparative law is not itself a system of law or a body of rules, but rather a method or approach to legal inquiry." (Berring, How to Find the Law Williams KF240 .C5383 1989, 9th ed., p.565).

Access to foreign law varies greatly among legal systems. Governments may or may not publish their legal materials and any published materials may be woefully out of date. American legal researchers often have to adjust their expectations with regard to current law and English language availability. Most researchers want foreign laws in English and this is often not possible. Typically, foreign governments do not provide "official" English translations of their statues or cases. The internet has certainly broadened access to legal resources on foreign government web sites, but these materials are usually in the local language. Note that materials marked TryIt are recommended and have been very useful to the librarians.

Research methods will vary depending on the country you are researching. When beginning to research a legal system, you will want to consider the following:

  • Identify what you need
    • Do you need a constitution, a specific statute, a case, or general information?
    • Do you have a citation to the law, case, etc.?
    • What are the dates?
    • Do you need the complete text of the law, a summary, an English translation, or a detailed explanation?
    • Will an electronic version be sufficient?
  • Identify the sources of law for the country
    • Does the country publish codes, compilations of statutes or reporters?
    • A good source for gathering this information is the Foreign Law Guide database.
    • Once you have identified a source, check the library catalog or other bibliographic databases to determine if the item is available.
    • The sections in this guide on Legislation, Case Law and Other Sources of Law discuss sources and strategies for finding primary law.
  • Understand the structure of the foreign legal system
    • Is it a civil law system based on codes, a common law system (such as the United States) or a mixed system? Some legal systems are influenced by religious law. See World Legal Systemsto quickly determine the type of legal system for a particular country.
    • It very helpful to know the basics of the legal system and also useful to have general background information on the country.
    • The sections on Foreign Legal Systems and Country Background Information will give you suggested research sources.
  • Use a secondary source
    • A secondary source, such as a journal article or a book, can help you at any stage of your research.
    • Secondary sources may describe the law or legal issue, provide a citation or include commentary. See the section on Periodical Literature in this guide for more help.

If you have questions, please feel free to contact the Wolff International & Comparative Law Library reference desk at 202-662-4195 or by email: intlref@law.georgetown.edu.