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Georgetown Law Library

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.

Foreign Legislation and Regulations

Introduction

If you are new foreign law research, take a moment to review the following introductory information about legal terminology,  the publication of laws in jurisdictions outside the U.S., and the availability of English translations of foreign laws.
 

Terminology

One of the challenges of researching the law of a foreign jurisdiction for the first time is familiarizing yourself with the jurisdiction's legal terminology.  It can be especially challenging when someone trained in the common law tradition needs to research the law in a civil law jurisdiction and vice versa.  The table below includes definitions of some key terms which may not be familiar to American researchers. 

Term Description
Codes (in civil law jurisdictions and in mixed jurisdictions of civil law) In civil law jurisdictions, codes are comprehensive and systematic compilations of general legal principles that serve as primary sources of law.  The theoretical frameworks established by civil law codes are supplemented by statutory law and regulations

Although codes are enacted by legislatures, they are distinct from ordinary legislation in that legal scholars typically play a major role in drafting them.  In this respect, codes are more analogous to Restatements of the Law in the U.S.

Since most codes in civil law jurisdictions are infrequently amended or updated, researchers are much more likely to find them in print in U.S. academic law libraries than other types of foreign legislation. 
Consolidated Legislation Consolidated legislation refers to the current version of a statute, incorporating all revisions and amendments made subsequent to its initial enactment. 

For some jurisdictions, it is relatively easy to locate consolidated legislation.  (It is often available in an electronic format on legislative websites, but usually only in the language of the jurisdiction).  For other jurisdictions, it can be much more of a challenge. 

It is always worth checking to try to determine if what you have found is the legislation as it was originally enacted or a consolidated version thereof.
Delegated Legislation or Secondary Legislation or Subsidiary Legislation These generic terms refer to laws promulgated by government officials, ministries or regulatory bodies acting under the authority delegated to them by the legislature.  In the U.S., these types of laws are known as administrative regulations.

The precise terminology used varies by jurisdiction and may include any of the following terms:  decrees, legislative instruments, orders, orders in council, orders of council, ordinances, regulations, rules, and statutory instruments, among others.

Publication of Laws

Americans conducting foreign law research should bear in mind that the publication of laws in jurisdictions outside the U.S. differs significantly from the publication of laws inside the U.S.  Knowing how and where foreign laws are published will make it easier for you to search for and retrieve them.

In the U.S., laws enacted during the current session of Congress, known as session laws, initially are published in chronological order in the Statutes at Large before being incorporated in the U.S. Code, an official compilation of all federal statutes currently in force organized by subject. Similarly, newly promulgated administrative regulations are first published in chronological order in the Federal Register before being incorporated in the the Code of Federal Regulations, an official compilation of all federal regulations currently in force organized by subject.

In almost all jurisdictions outside the U.S., newly enacted legislation and newly promulgated regulations are published chronologically in an official gazette.  Many gazettes also publish amendments made to existing statutes and regulations.  In some jurisdictions, commercial publishers produce unofficial compilations of statutes and regulations currently in force.  However, there are very few, if any, foreign equivalents of the U.S. Code or the Code of Federal Regulations, in which all current statutes or regulations are officially compiled, organized by subject, and continuously updated.

These divergent approaches to the publication of laws are summarized in the following table:

Type of Law Initial Publication Subsequent Codification
U.S. Federal Legislation Statutes at Large
Laws enacted during the current session of Congress (session laws) initially are published in chronological order in the Statutes at Large.
U.S. Code
Official compilation of all federal statutes currently in force arranged by subject & regularly updated.
U.S. Federal Regulations Federal Register
Newly promulgated final regulations initially are published in chronological order in the Federal Register.
Code of Federal Regulations
Official compilation of all federal regulations currently in force arranged by subject & regularly updated.
Foreign Legislation (other than civil law codes) Official Gazette
Newly enacted legislation is published in chronological order in an official gazette, as are amendments to existing statutes. (Names of gazettes vary by jurisdiction.)
Very few foreign equivalents of the U.S. Code.
Foreign Regulations Official Gazette
Newly promulgated regulations are published in chronological order in an official gazette, as are amendments to existing regulations.  (Names of gazettes vary by jurisdiction.)
Very few foreign equivalents of the Code of Federal Regulations.

When researching U.S. law, the most common starting point for retrieving the full text of a federal statute or regulation is a citation to the relevant section of the U.S. Code or the Code of Federal Regulations.  When researching foreign law, you may find citations to official gazettes or to unofficial compilations of statutes and regulations currently in force.  It is unlikely that you will find citations to official compilations of current statutes or regulations because very few, if any, such official compilations exist in print. 

To retrieve the full text of a foreign statute or regulation, you will need at least some the following information:  1) the type of law (terminology varies by jurisdiction), 2) the title or popular name of the law, 3) the number assigned to the law (if there is no title or popular name), and 4) the date of enactment or the date of publication in the official gazette (or at least the year).
 

English Translations

Americans unfamiliar with foreign law research often assume that English translations of foreign laws are readily available.  In practice, most foreign laws are not translated into English for the simple reason that producing an accurate English translation is a time-consuming and expensive process that requires familiarity with legal terminology in both languages.

The availability of English translations varies widely, depending on the subject matter of the law and, to a lesser extent, the size of the jurisdiction.  Translations of constitutional texts and laws governing commercial transactions, intellectual property, and taxation are easier to find than translations of other types of legal materials.  Laws enacted in jurisdictions with large populations also are more likely to be translated than laws enacted in less populous jurisdictions.

Reliable sources for English translations include subject-specific collections of national laws maintained by international organizations and by subscription-based legal research platforms, as well as the foreign law databases on Lexis and Westlaw.  Some foreign government websites, particularly those maintained by legislative and regulatory bodies, also provide access to English translations of selected laws and regulations.  For more information about these resources, visit the Single Jurisdiction Resources page and the Foreign Laws by Subject page of this research guide.   

If you locate an English translation of a foreign law, keep the following limitations in mind:

  • Official vs. Unofficial.  Official translations, which are prepared by or on behalf of the jurisdiction, tend to be more accurate and reliable than unofficial translations produced by commercial publishers, which vary in quality.  The source of a translation usually is disclosed at the beginning or the end of the document.  Frustratingly, this information is sometimes omitted. 
     
  • Authority.  Only legal texts in the official language(s) of the jurisdiction are truly authoritative.  No matter how accurate an English translation may be, it is not legally binding unless English is an official language of the jurisdiction in question.
     
  • Currency.  Unlike legislation and regulations, which are frequently amended, legal translations are rarely updated and can quickly lose their currency.  To determine if a law has changed since the translation was published, try to find the current version of the law in its original language.  Even if you don't read the language, you may still be able to discern the date of its enactment.  If it doesn't match the date in the translation, it is likely that the law has been amended.
     

Automated machine translation tools, such as Google Translate, are steadily improving.  Nevertheless, legal researchers should exercise caution when using them, as they may fail to recognize specialized jargon or overlook critical nuances in meaning.  Accurate legal translation still requires human input.  If a machine-generated translation is the only one available, it is best not to rely too heavily on it.  Practitioners should hire a reputable translation service or retain local counsel fluent in the language of the jurisdiction.

Especially for academic researchers, an English language summary of a foreign law may be more useful than a machine-generated translation of dubious quality.  The subscription-based International Encyclopaedia of Laws (IEL) Online provides detailed summaries of foreign laws by subject for selected jurisdictions.  Summaries of foreign laws also can be found in other types of secondary sources, such as jurisdiction-specific treatises and journal articles.