Beginning Your Foreign Legal Research
Last Updated December 13, 2016
This guide is designed to serve as a starting point for those just unfamiliar with conducting legal research for domestic or national law from outside of the United States. It is intended merely as an overview, and is by no means exhaustive. This guide makes use of resources available at Columbia Law School, but can also be useful to those who are not members of the Columbia Law community.
As a starting point, a distinction must be made between foreign legal research and international legal research. In its simplest terms, foreign legal research is research involving the domestic or national law from a foreign jurisdiction. This guide is prepared from the U.S. perspective, so foreign legal research means the domestic or national law from any non-U.S. jurisdiction.
International legal research, by contrast, is research involving laws that impact multiple nations or are not tied to a specific single jurisdiction: treaties are one of the most common and well-known examples of international legal materials. If you are seeking information on international legal research, Columbia Law Library has prepared a number of other research guides that may be of interest.
For additional assistance in finding foreign legal materials at Columbia's Diamond Law Library, please do not hesitate to contact the reference librarians at the Reference Desk.
- 1 Understanding Legal Systems
- 2 How to Identify the Relevant Legal System in the Jurisdiction of Interest
- 3 How to Identify Specific Sources of Law in the Jurisdiction of Interest
- 4 How to Locate Specific Materials in Electronic Format
- 4.1 Resources with Multiple Types of Legal Materials
- 4.2 Constitutions
- 4.3 Legislation
- 4.4 Case Law
- 4.5 Other Resources by Subject
- 5 How to Locate Specific Materials in Print Format
- 6 Translation Resources
- 7 Further Readings, Tools, and Research Guides
- 8 Next Steps
Understanding Legal Systems
In order to effectively conduct foreign legal research, one must first have at least a basic understanding of the legal system used in your jurisdiction of interest. Generally, most legal systems can be described as one of three distinct mono-systems or a combination of any of those systems (sometimes called a mixed system). The three most widespread legal systems are common law, civil law, and religious law. Certain areas of law in some jurisdictions are also influenced by customary law, which is a less formal legal system that often does not involve reducing laws to writing.
It is important to understand the legal system of your jurisdiction of interest because different legal systems treat particular types of law differently in terms of importance. For example, case law is considered primary source in a common law jurisdiction, whereas it is generally afforded less importance as a secondary source in a civil law jurisdiction.
If you are already very familiar with the jurisdiction you are interested in, you may want to skip down to Next Steps and look at some jurisdiction-specific resources.
- Introduction to Foreign Legal Systems [Print Resource] - 3rd Fl REFERENCE; Comp 077 In835 1994
- This is an excellent primer on the various legal systems. Though a bit dated at this point (published in 1994), this text retains a great deal of value for the beginning researcher who is unfamiliar with the subject.
- Comparative legal traditions in a nutshell [Print Resource] - 3rd Fl Reserve; Comp 300 G48 2016
- Part of the Nutshell series, this resource is written in accessible language, but focuses only on civil law and common law. Some of the historical and theoretical discussion will be of more interest to the seasoned researcher, but of particular use to the beginning researcher are chapters like Sources of Law and the Judicial Process in Civil Law Systems and sub-chapters like Precedent within the discussion of the common law tradition.
Select Additional Starting Resources
Civil Law System
- The Civil Law Tradition: An introduction to the legal systems of Europe and Latin America [Print Resource] - 3rd Fl Reserve; Comp 300 M554 2007
- The full text focuses heavily on legal history, but Chapter 4 - The Sources of Law - includes an excellent summary of how law is approached in a civil law jurisdiction and what types of materials a researcher should hope to locate.
Common Law System
- Statutory and common law interpretation [Print Resource] - 3rd Fl Reserve; K231 .G74 2013
- Part II is titled Common Law Interpretation and gives guidance on issues in common law systems that those from other systems may be unaccustomed to using, such as Precedent.
Religious Law System
- Religion, Law and Tradition: Comparative Studies in Religious Law [Print Resource] - Cellar; Comp 980 R2791 2002
- This title has chapters on with good introductions on individual religious legal systems (e.g., Judaism, Canon law, Islamic law, Hindu law, Buddhist law) and includes extensive notes throughout to allow for in-depth follow-up research.
Customary Law System
- Custom as a source of law [ Print Resource] - 4th Floor; K282 .B43 2010
- In three parts, this book provides a general background on customary law, details about the application of customary law in specific domestic subjects (e.g., family law, property law, contract law, tort law), and information on the application of customary law in public and private international law.
- African customary law: an introduction [Print Resource] - 4th Floor; KQC99 .O59 2013
- Chapters 1 and 2 of this book are an effective introduction to customary law in Africa, and chapter 3 talks about the application of customary law in some of the larger African legal systems.
Mixed Law System
- Mixed jurisdictions worldwide: the third legal family [Print Resource] - Offsite storage (Request in advance); Comp 300 P182 2001
- This resource includes a brief introduction to the idea of mixed jurisdictions, followed by a more in-depth comparative discussion of mixed jurisdiction systems and the more classic systems of law. Finally, it includes very detailed reports on 6 different jurisdictions that use mixed law systems - The Republic of South Africa, Scotland, Louisiana, Quebec, Puerto Rico, and The Philippines.
How to Identify the Relevant Legal System in the Jurisdiction of Interest
To the beginning researcher, gaining a complete understanding of the history and theory behind each of the various legal systems may be a larger undertaking than time permits. Of primary importance is the ability to correctly identify the general legal system that controls in the jurisdiction and subject. This knowledge will provide the researcher with a general sense of what sort of materials that should be searched for in conducting research. Once you know the type of legal system you can expect to find in your jurisdiction of interest, you'll have a much better idea of the sources that will be most important.
Here are some additional resources that can help identify the legal system(s) in effect in particular jurisdictions of interest.
- JuriGlobe - World Legal Systems [Electronic Resource]
- Available on the open web, the JuriGlobe project is maintained by the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law and is available in English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Russian, and Arabic. It classifies jurisdictions by the type of legal system present and also includes the official language(s) of jurisdictions.
- CIA World Factbook - Field Listing: Legal System [Electronic Resource]
- Also available on the open web, the CIA World Factbook provides information on the history, people, government, economy, geography, communications, transportation, military, and transnational issues for 267 world entities. Of interest to this guide is the entry called Legal System, linked above, that includes a brief description of the legal system present in each entity covered.
- Legal Systems of the World: A Political, Social, and Cultural Encyclopedia [Print Resource] - 3rd Fl REFERENCE Comp 000 L522 2002
- This 4-volume print set provides a wealth of information on the legal systems of particular jurisdictions - including some at the sub-national level - and background on related terms. In includes graphical representations of court systems and political boundaries, internal cross references, and external references and further reading suggestions.
- Modern Legal Systems Cyclopedia [Print Resource] - 3rd Fl Reserve; Comp 000 M72 - Electronic Resource - Subscription Only
- This resource goes into more depth with profiles of the legal systems in various countries. Entries generally include background and history on how the legal system developed, the role of the judiciary, the legislative process, and foundational legal documents. It is available in print but updates through 2005 are accessible via HeinOnline. It can be accessed in HeinOnline two ways - To browse the full publication, 1) Pegasus > E-Resources > HeinOnline > Catalog > type Modern Legal Systems Cyclopedia; to see particular country profiles, 2) Pegasus > E-Resources > HeinOnline > World Constitutions Illustrated > choose a country > expand Commentaries & Other Relevant Sources > scroll down to the entry for Modern Legal Systems Cyclopedia.
How to Identify Specific Sources of Law in the Jurisdiction of Interest
- Foreign Law Guide: current sources of codes and basic legislation in jurisdictions of the world [Electronic Resource - Subscription Only]
- Formerly known as Reynolds & Flores (its original authors), the Foreign Law Guide provides background on jurisdictions' legal systems as well as information on specific primary sources researchers will need to consult.
- Guide to Law Online [Electronic Resource]
- The Guide to Law Online, prepared by the Law Library of Congress Public Services Division, is an annotated guide to sources of information on government and law available online. It includes selected links to useful and reliable sites for legal information. Though the name may suggest that the guide will lead only to material available online, it is also useful to help identify sources of print materials. This is especially true when it comes to identifying the title of a specific source that is only available in print. In particular, having the official name of the Gazette can be helpful when searching for an item in print. Look under the Legislative heading on specific jurisdiction pages for this information.
- Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals [Electronic Resource - Subscription Only]
- Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals (IFLP) is an excellent multilingual index to articles and book reviews appearing in over 500 legal journals published worldwide. It provides in-depth coverage of public and private international law, comparative and foreign law, and the law of all jurisdictions other than the United States, the U.K., Canada, and Australia. IFLP also analyzes the contents of approximately eighty individually published collections of legal essays, Festschriften, Mélanges, and congress reports each year. Because some foreign legal journals and newspapers include summaries or full text of new cases and legislation, IFLP may sometimes help you locate primary source materials that are not otherwise easily accessible.
How to Locate Specific Materials in Electronic Format
More and more legal information is being made available in electronic format, including some available on the open web. In many cases, the text of foreign laws and jurisprudence is available directly from the web sites of legislatures, judicial bodies, universities and non-governmental organizations.
Search engines (e.g., Google) can be useful, particularly if you can run a phrase search for language you know is included, but the results also often incomplete. In many cases, legal databases, especially from foreign jurisdictions, are not adequately indexed by the major search engines. In other cases, a PDF of the original published law or decision may be available electronically, but not in a format that allows it to be retrieved by full-text searching.
Below is a list of resources that will include legal information of various types, including many with full text, arranged by type of materials and by subject matter.
Resources with Multiple Types of Legal Materials
- World Legal Information Institute: Free, independent and non-profit access to worldwide law [Electronic Resource]
- The World Legal Information Institute (WorldLII) is a free, independent and non-profit global legal research facility. The core idea of WorldLII is to provide consistent and innovative forms of access to all of the high quality legal databases found on WorldLII's participating LIIs, and on WorldLII itself. WorldLII also provides a systematic and comprehensive approach to accessing the vast quantity of other legal information available via the Internet, through its WorldLII Catalog and Websearch facility, and through translating WorldLII searches to enable easier use of Internet-wide search engines. WorldLII's coverage varies by jurisdiction, and is broken down into two parts - 1) Databases, which are hosted by WorldLII and include the full text of legal materials, including foreign case law and legislation; and 2) Catalog and Websearch, which leads users to sites outside of WorldLII that contain legal materials.
- Columbia Law Library, Foreign Law Databases [Electronic Resources - Subscription Only]
- This list includes the Foreign Law Databases that are accessible to the Columbia Law community. It includes jurisdiction-specific resources covering legal materials from throughout the world, including Canada, China, Japan, India, and European and African countries also.
- HeinOnline: World Constitutions Illustrated [Electronic Resource - Subscription Only]
- This HeinOnline resource includes the constitutions of almost all countries in the country's official language. It also includes some translations into English and some historical constitutions. It includes helpful links to other relevant documents included in HeinOnline, including commentaries, scholarly articles, bibliographies and external links.
- Foreign Law Guide [Electronic Resource - Subscription Only]
- This database provides information on sources of foreign law for most countries. It includes citations to legislation, references to translations when available, and select secondary sources. This database is commonly referred to as Reynolds and Flores and is now maintained as part of the BrillOnline Reference Works collection. In most instances, this resource does not contain the full text of legislation.
If you know the exact name of the court that rendered the decision, you can use your search engine of choice to locate that particular court's website and see if it provides the full text of its decisions. If you don't have the exact name, try using the Guide to Law Online (referenced above) to get the name or use one of the resources below to locate case law.
- Constitutional Court: Wikipedia [Electronic Resource]
- This Wikipedia entry includes links to Wikipedia pages about specific constitutional courts (organized by jurisdiction), each of which include a link to the court website where available.
- Constitutional Courts [Electronic Resource]
- This collection of links to Constitutional Court websites was created and is maintained by The Constitutional Court of the Republic of Armenia.
Other Resources by Subject
In addition to the specific resources listed below, there is a great wealth of information available by browsing the Law Reports produced by the Law Library of Congress. The legal research reports provide commentary and recommended resources on issues and events. often dealing with foreign law and including detailed annotations and references. If there is a report on your subject, it is a great place to start.
For more detail, please see Columbia Law's International Trade Law Guide, Research Guide: International Commercial Arbitration, and guide on Foreign Investment Research Tips.
- World Trade Organization - Legal Texts [Electronic Resource]
- Most of the WTO agreements are the result of the 1986–94 Uruguay Round negotiations, signed at the Marrakesh ministerial meeting in April 1994. There are about 60 agreements and decisions totaling 550 pages. Negotiations since then have produced additional legal texts such as the Information Technology Agreement, services and accession protocols.
- International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) - Database of Bilateral Investment Treaties [Electronic Resource]
- This database is searchable by signatory States, particular treaty and year of signature. It also indicates when the treaties entered into force, and whether they refer to the ICSID Convention or Additional Facility arbitration and conciliation. This database does not have full text, but most of these treaties can be found in ICSID’s multi-volume collection, Investment promotion and protection treaties, which is updated and available in print.
- HeinOnline: World Constitutions Illustrated [Electronic Resource - Subscription Only]
- As referenced above, this HeinOnline resource includes the constitutions of almost all countries in the country's official language as well as some translations into English and some historical constitutions. It includes helpful links to other relevant documents included in HeinOnline, including commentaries, scholarly articles, bibliographies and external links.
- Constitute - The World's Constitutions to Read, Search, and Compare [Electronic Resource]
- An extremely ambitious project, Constitute not only provides English translations of many national constitutions, it also has attempted to organize them in a fashion that allows for easy comparison across nations. For example, you can select use the Compare feature to see how the Nicaraguan and Polish constitutions each handle the issue of Treaty Ratification.
- Constitution Finder [Electronic Resource]
- This resource includes both hosted Constitutions in PDF format, as well as links to external sites. Constitutions are often available in both English and other languages.
- International Constitutional Law [Electronic Resource]
- This site includes unofficial translations of many foreign constitutions into English, which can be viewed in HTML format or downloaded as rich text files.
- Constitution Society - National Constitutions [Electronic Resource]
- Though it retains the look of website from last century, the Constitution Society does have some more recent constitutions as well.
- United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime—Legal Library [Electronic Resource]
- The UNODC online legal library provides access to legislation adopted by over 150 countries to implement international drug control conventions. Click on 'Country Pages' on the left.
- American Series of Foreign Penal Codes [Electronic Resource - Subscription Only] Also available in Print
- Though not updated regularly, the American Series of Foreign Penal Codes is a 32-volume set, with individual volumes devoted to the Penal Code of a particular foreign jurisdiction. Many are from European jurisdictions, but other areas of the world are also represented (e.g., Argentina, China, Colombia, Israel).
- ACE Project—Election Law Resources [Electronic Resource]
- Organized by country, this portal provides information about election laws in over 200 countries on specific areas (e.g., voter registration, election integrity, news, reports, legislative framework).
- ECOLEX: A Gateway to Environmental Law [Electronic Resource]
- ECOLEX provides access to treaties, legislation, court decisions and literature on environmental law. Use the ‘Advanced Search’ feature for more targeted searching.
- United Nations Food and Drug Organization: FAOLEX [Electronic Resource]
- FAOLEX is a comprehensive and up-to-date legislative and policy database, one of the world's largest electronic collection of national laws, regulations and policies on food, agriculture and renewable natural resources. Users of FAOLEX have direct access to the abstracts and indexing information about each text, as well as to the full text of the legislation and policies contained in the database. The Advanced Search feature allows users to identify a subject of interest (e.g., Energy, Air & Atmosphere, Wild Species & Ecosystems) and thereafter search with limiters on fields like Geographical Area, Year, Language of text, or even for Words from record.
Human Rights and Humanitarian Law
- Refugee Law and Policy [Electronic Resource]
- This Library of Congress report describes the law and policy on refugees and other asylum seekers in 22 geographically dispersed countries and, at the supranational level, in the European Union. The individual surveys cover such topics as participation in relevant international conventions; laws and regulations governing the admission of refugees and handling refugee claims; processes for handling refugees arriving at the border; procedures for evaluating whether an applicant is entitled to refugee status; the accommodations and assistance provided to refugees in the jurisdiction; requirements for naturalization; and whether asylum policy has been affected by international emergencies, such as the current refugee crisis in Europe.
- Annual Review of Population Law [Electronic Resource]
- A database of summaries and excerpts of legislation, constitutions, court decisions and other official government documents from every country in the world relating to population policies, reproductive rights and health, women's status and rights, children and adolescents, HIV/AIDS and related topics. Information is organized by topic and country and covers roughly 1974 to 2008/2009.
- Virtual Library on Equality [Electronic Resource]
- The Equal Rights Trust’s Virtual Library on Equality serves as a tool for litigators, governments, civil society, human rights defenders and the wider equality community. The library stores a multitude of non-discrimination resources, ranging from documents on case law, reports on international, regional and national discrimination norms, advocacy submissions to governments and UN bodies, legal guidance resources, academic journals and book chapters. All of Equal Rights Trust’s publications can also be found here.
- Columbia Law School—Human and Constitutional Rights [Electronic Resource]
- This portal provides links to constitutions and other documents by country and region. It includes a comparative constitutional rights chart and a comparative Bills of Rights database. This website is no longer being updated as of March 26, 2008.
- International Committee of the Red Cross--National Implementation of International Humanitarian Law [Electronic Resource]
- This database provides documentation and commentaries concerning the implementation of international humanitarian law at the national level. It provides access to national legislation and decisions by state and topic.
- Prevent Genocide International—Laws Against Genocide [Electronic Resource]
- Go to the 'Domestic Laws' section, which can be found towards the top left-hand side of the screen, for laws and penal codes relating to genocide from around the world.
Intellectual Property Law
For more detail, please see Columbia Law's Resource Guide for Researching Intellectual Property Law in an International Context.
- World Intellectual Property Organization — WIPO Lex [Electronic Resource]
- WIPO Lex is a one-stop search facility for national laws and treaties on intellectual property (IP) of WIPO, WTO and UN Members. It also features related information which elaborates, analyzes and interprets these laws and treaties. It provides streamlined access to reference material of key importance for optimal information on the global IP System. Updated regularly, this is the best starting point when looking for material on worldwide IP law.
- UNESCO Collection of National Copyright Laws [Electronic Resource]
- This site endeavors to provide access to national copyright and related rights legislation of UNESCO Member States. It contains about 150 laws, but was last updated in 2009. Access to national copyright and related rights legislation of UNESCO Member States. Laws are organized first by region and then by country. Laws are generally available in PDF format.
- Eldis Intellectual Property Rights [Electronic Resource]
- Eldis is an online information service providing free access to relevant, up-to-date and diverse research on international development issues, including intellectual property. The database includes over 40,000 summaries and provides free links to full-text research and policy documents from over 8,000 publishers.
- International Labour Organization - Information System on International Labour Standards - NORMLEX [Electronic Resource]
- NORMLEX is a new information system which brings together information on International Labour Standards (such as ratification information, reporting requirements, comments of the ILO's supervisory bodies, etc.) as well as national labour and social security laws. NORMLEX has been designed to provide comprehensive and user friendly information on these topics and includes the NATLEX database as well as the information which was previously contained in the former APPLIS, ILOLEX and Libsynd databases.
- International Labour Organization — NATLEX [Electronic Resource]
- This database is maintained by the ILO for national labor, social security and related human rights legislation. It provides abstracts by legislation and is indexed by keywords and subject classifications.
- United Nations Resources on Child Labour [Electronic Resource]
- Created by the UN as a resource for Speakers, this includes background information, as well as a collection of International Conventions addressing the issue.
Real Property Law
- LandWise [Electronic Resource]
- Updated regularly, LandWise is a free online resource connecting users to legal materials, information about relevant customary practices, and explanatory materials. Particularly geared towards women's land rights, Landwise includes a database of foreign laws that supports both searching and browsing, as well as practice guides on various topics and jurisdictions.
How to Locate Specific Materials in Print Format
At Columbia Law, most materials from civil law and religious law legal systems are using the Schiller Classification System. This classification system is also used for some smaller countries that use common law legal systems. Under Schiller classification, the call number consists of an alpha-numeric combination that allows the researcher to find results based on governing body/region and type of material.
First is a prefix that identifies the governing body/region. For instance, Ger identifies the material as related to German Law. Following that is a number that identifies a particular topical division. For instance, 110 identifies the material as Statutes. Therefore, anything that has the Schiller call number beginning with Ger 110 is a statute from Germany.
The same pattern exists for all material classified in the Schiller Classification System. For further explanation and a complete listing of the breakdown of topical divisions and alphabetical list of foreign law prefixes, please see the Arthur W. Diamond Law Library Quick Guide to Schiller Classification [Electronic Resource].
The Schiller Classification System is especially useful because it also can be used as a research tool, rather than merely identifying where a particular resource can be found on the shelf. Using Pegasus and running a Hicks/Schiller Call # search, you can easily identify the sources of law available from a particular jurisdiction - even if you were unaware what the resources might be called. A search for Ger 110 (our example from above) yields the available German statutory material, beginning with Reichsgesetzblatt - even if you did not know Reichsgesetzblatt was the name you should be looking for.
Pegasus: Columbia Law Library's Catalog
Using Schiller Classification
In the Pegasus simple search, you can search by the Hicks/Schiller call number. If you search for a complete call number (e.g., Ger 110 G34) you will be taken to the one resource that matches. If you search for a partial beginning call number (e.g., Ger 110), you will be taken to a list of call numbers that match your criteria. This allows you to effectively use Pegasus to find types of materials without a complete call number or title. In many instances, beginning with a Schiller call number search can be the most effective way of locating materials within the Columbia Law collection. See Schiller Classification (above) for more explanation, or view the Arthur W. Diamond Law Library Quick Guide to Schiller Classification [Electronic Resource] for complete details.
In the Pegasus simple search, searching the Keyword field searches for words or phrases that appear in the title, author, subject, or table of contents. Put exact phrases into quotation marks (“”). Only results that include ALL of your words and phrases will appear.
Using a Specific Title
In the Pegasus simple search, you must know and use the beginning of the title (excluding articles such as The and An) to locate it. If, however, you'd like to conduct a search using only a word within the title, you can do that using the Advanced keyword searching functionality.
Using an Author
In the Pegasus simple search, searching the Author field for the name of the jurisdiction (e.g., Peru, Germany, Sri Lanka) that produced the material can sometime yield useful results. Occasionally, especially for older materials, the name of the capital city, rather than the country, can be substituted. Also keep in mind that country and city names may have changed over time. If you are unsure of the alternate names used for a jurisdiction, a resource like the CIA World Factbook includes those historical designations under the Government heading within the country profile.
This type of search is generally more useful for jurisdictions without many materials, because the results can get overwhelming quickly in a collection of Columbia Law's size. In addition, this type of search is - almost by definition - less precise than a Schiller Classification search, as described above. Nevertheless, it can be a quick check to make sure your other methods of locating materials have not missed anything. Unlike a Schiller Classification search, an Author search can be used for any country, including those that are organized using the Library of Congress Classification system.
Using a Subject Heading
In the Pegasus simple search, you can sometimes locate material using the Subject field. This generally is more effective for jurisdictions that use a civil law legal system. The most effective search is often formatted like this: Law -- Jurisdiction (e.g., Law -- Cuba) though for some civil law jurisdictions Civil Law - Jurisdiction (e.g., Civil Law -- Cuba) will yield different results (usually actual legislation). As with an Author search, this sort of search can often be overwhelming for countries with a wealth of legal materials.
At the outset, it must be noted that high-quality translations into English of foreign legal materials do not always exist. Just as you cannot find U.S. legal materials translated into every other language, many legal materials not originally in English do not get translated - officially or otherwise. Here are, however, some resources that may prove helpful.
- Foreign Law Guide [Electronic Resource - Subscription Only]
- Referenced above as an excellent source of information on foreign legislation, the Foreign Law Guide also includes extremely detailed information on English translations of foreign legal materials. Though it does not contain the text of the translations itself, consulting the Foreign Law Guide will often lead you to a resource - sometimes print, sometimes electronic - that will have high-quality translations into English.
- Foreign Law Translations [Electronic Resource]
- This site is a resource for French, German, Austrian and Israeli legal materials in the fields of constitutional, administrative, contract and tort law. The English translations of decisions from Germany and France include cases from the Reichsgericht, the Bundesverfassungsgericht, the Bundesgerichtshof, the Conseil Constitutionnel, the Conseil d’Etat and the Cour de Cassation. Translations were made by specialists in the legal field, and one can navigate to the geographic area of interest using the list on the right.
- Translations by Julio Romañach, Jr. [Print Resources]
- Prolific in translation, Julio Romañach, Jr. has translated legal codes from a range of Latin American countries into English, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and others.
Machine(computer) translation is still quite limited, and very often fails to capture the nuance or context that plays a vital role in understanding legal materials. Nevertheless, machine translation tools can give the researcher a general idea of the topics being discussed when no high-quality translation is available. Here are some of the better developed (though still limited) machine translation tools available.
- Google Translate [Electronic Resource]
- Google Translate will attempt to automatically identify the language, and allows you to paste foreign language text into a box and get a machine translation of that language. Importantly, you can also past a URL into Google Translate to get a translation of the text parts of a webpage, though toolbars and graphics will often not be captured.
- Linguee [Electronic Resource]
- Linguee does not allow for translation of full web pages, but it often does a better job than most machine translations with idioms and terms of art. This is because, in addition to translation of the words entered, it will also retrieve translations for the term available on the open web. The translations retrieved include, when available, translations from UN documents and government sources.
- Babelfish [Electronic Resource]
- Babelfish is strictly text translation - it cannot translate websites based on a URL - but can be used as an alternative if desired.
Further Readings, Tools, and Research Guides
For some additional detail, please see our related research guides -
- Finding Books and Articles on International and Foreign Law [Electronic Resource]
- This guide is an introduction to catalogs, key journal indexes, and other finding aids relevant to international and foreign legal research.
- A Selective List of Guides to Foreign Legal Research [Electronic Resource]
- This Columbia Law guide links out to jurisdiction-specific guides from around the web.
This introduction is only the beginning to understanding how to do foreign legal research. While there are general legal systems that you must understand, there will also be variations from one country to the next. To get further into your research, you should identify and use a research guide that focuses on your specific jurisdiction(s). Some examples are below.
- A Selective List of Guides to Foreign Legal Research [Electronic Resource]
- This Columbia Law guide links out to jurisdiction-specific guides from around the web.
- GlobaLex [Electronic Resource]
- Perhaps the best place to locate jurisdiction-specific guides, GlobaLex has guides for most countries of the world, written by practitioners or scholars who work with that legal system extensively. Click on Foreign Law Research and then locate your jurisdiction of interest. Always look for the UPDATE link to the right of the main entry for the most recent information.
- Foreign Law by Jurisdiction - NYU Law LibGuides [Electronic Resource]
- This LibGuide includes mostly references to electronic sources of law, but it also includes links out to other jurisdiction-specific guides. Its coverage of European jurisdictions is stronger than its coverage of the rest of the world.
Ultimately, you may want (or need) to reach out to an expert in the law of the country you're trying to research.
- American Association of Law Libraries, Foreign, Comparative, and International Law Special Interest Section Jumpstart
- The Jumpstart program is designed to help people connect to a librarian with an interest and/or expertise in conducting legal research in particular jurisdictions.
- Websites of U.S. Embassies, Consulates, and Diplomatic Missions
- These websites often have a focus on visiting or doing business in the particular jurisdiction covered, but they will also include contact information if what you are interested in falls outside of those areas.
- Law Library of Congress - Ask a Librarian
- The Library of Congress Ask-A-Librarian service will often provide some legal and legislative research assistance for foreign, international, federal, and state law, but cannot offer legal advice, interpretation, or analysis which could be interpreted as the practice of law, the compilation of bibliographies or legislative histories, or answers to student assignments.