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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.

Research Strategy for Retrieving Foreign Case Law

Getting Started

When researching foreign case law, the first step is to identify the type of legal system in place in the jurisdiction that interests you.  Knowing the type of legal system will enable you to assess the likelihood of finding relevant case law and help you to determine where to look for it.  If you don't know, or aren't sure, what kind of legal system is in place, consult the Foreign Legal Systems page of this research guide.

Common Law Jurisdictions & Mixed Jurisdictions of Common Law

Decisions issued by courts in common law jurisdictions, and in mixed jurisdictions of common law, are easier to find than decisions issued by courts in non-common law jurisdictions.  Researchers are less likely to encounter language barriers, since most of the court systems that are based on, or heavily influenced by, the British model use English as their working language.

As in the U.S., judgments that have precedential value continue to be published in printed case law reporters.  Most recent judgments, and many older ones, are accessible online from free and subscription-based legal research platforms.  Judgments issued by courts of final appeal and by courts of intermediate appeal usually can be found online or in print.  Decisions issued by courts of first instance and by specialized tribunals can be more difficult to locate, especially in less developed jurisdictions.

Retrieving a Known Case by Citation or Party Name

If you have a full citation, it should include the party names, the date or year of the decision, and an acronym or abbreviation indicating either the name of the court that decided the case or the name of the print reporter in which the case was published. 

If you don't know what the acronym or abbreviation stands for, use the Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations (or one of the print resources listed on the Abbreviations and Dictionaries page of this guide) to decipher it. Knowing what court decided the case and in what print reporter (if any) it was published will make it easier to find the case. 

If you don't have a full citation, the party names and the date or year of decision may be sufficient to retrieve the case.

  • Case Law Databases
    To retrieve a case by citation or by party name, start with an online case law database.  For links to relevant case law databases, visit the Multi-Jurisdictional Resources page and the Case Law by Jurisdiction page of this research guide.  Bear in mind that cases published in certain print reporters may be accessible in some databases but not in others.  You may need to search multiple databases in order to retrieve the case.
  • Print Reporters
    Some cases, especially older ones, that are not accessible online may be available in print.  To determine if the Georgetown Law Library has a copy of the print reporter in which the case was published, use the Advanced Search and select Law Library Catalog.  The select Title as the search field and enter the full name of the print reporter in the search box.  If the Law Library doesn't have the reporter in print, search for it by title in WorldCat to see if it is available at another local law library.

If you can't find the case you are seeking using either of the methods described above, try one or more of the subject-specific compilations of case law described on the Case Law by Subject page of this research guide.

Exploratory Research

If you want to find cases from a particular common law jurisdiction that address a specific topic and you don't have a known case as a starting point, it is usually more efficient to start your research with a secondary source, such as a jurisdiction-specific treatise or journal article.  Secondary sources will help you to identify relevant cases and provide you with citations for retrieving them.

Keyword searching for case law can be viable option for jurisdiction like the Australia, Canada, India, South Africa, and the U.K., for which multiple electronic case law databases are available.  For links to these jurisdiction-specific databases, visit the Case Law by Jurisdiction page of this research guide.  Subject-specific compilations of case law also can be goods sources for identifying relevant cases from a particular common law jurisdiction.  Visit the Case Law by Subject page of this research guide for links to these subject-specific resources.

Non-Common Law Jurisdictions

In non-common law jurisdictions, most court decisions do not have precedential value and are only binding on the parties to the case.  There are no systems in place for systematically compiling, editing, and publishing court decisions, as there are in common law jurisdictions.  As a result, relatively few court decisions are accessible in print or online.

To the extent that court decisions are publicly available, they tend to be judgments issued in highly significant cases decided by constitutional courts and other courts of final appeal.  Decisions of intermediate appellate courts are more difficult to find, and decisions issued by trial courts of first instance are often not available.

Finding an English translation of a judgment can be even more challenging.  Cases involving questions of constitutional law and other matters of interest to legal scholars are the most likely to be translated, followed by cases involving multinational enterprises that are likely to have a significant impact on international commerce (antitrust, taxation, etc.).  Even for these types of cases, researchers may have to settle for an English language summary, rather than a full-text translation.

Listed below are three types of resources for locating judicial decisions from non-common law jurisdictions.  For landmark decisions issued by constitutional courts and other courts of final appeal, official gazettes and court or judicial websites are often the best places to look.  For decisions issued in less significant cases, a subject-specific compilation of case law may be a better option.  You may need to consult multiple sources.  Even then, you may still not be able to locate the decision you are seeking.

  • Court and Judicial Websites
    Judgments issued by constitutional courts and courts of final appeal are increasingly available for download from court and judicial websites.  The availability of judgments issued by lower courts on judicial websites varies by jurisdiction.  For the most part, these are limited to relatively recent judgments, as few court websites have the capacity to systematically archive judgments or to digitize older decisions issued in print. 

    For links to court and judicial websites, consult The Foreign Law Guide, the Law Library of Congress's Guide to Law Online, GlobaLex, and the World Legal Information Institute.  While some court websites may provide some top-level navigation in English, the interface and substantive content may only be available in the language(s) of the jurisdiction.
  • Compilations of Case Law by Subject
    A growing number of online resources offer compilations of court decisions from multiple jurisdictions that focus on a particular subject.  Many of them provide very detailed English summaries of judicial opinions.  Full-text English translations are less common.  Visit the Case Law by Subject page of this research guide for links to some of the best subject-specific collections of case law from jurisdictions worldwide.
  • Official Gazettes
    In addition to publishing newly enacted laws and regulations, some official gazettes also publish the most significant decisions issued by constitutional courts and other courts of final appeal.  For information on how to access official gazettes and how to determine if a particular gazette publishes judicial decisions, consult the Official Gazettes page of this research guide.

If a judicial decision is not available from any of the resources listed above, the next best alternative is to find a summary or an in-depth discussion and analysis of the case published in a secondary source.