Getting Started on a Foreign or Comparative Law Topic at the Pritzker Legal Research Center

What is Foreign Law? What is Comparative Law?

"Foreign law" refers to the law and/or legal system of another jurisdiction. For purposes of this web page, foreign law refers to the law of jurisdictions other than the United States and its states and dependencies.

"Comparative law" is a field of study that deals with the methodology for researching and comparing the laws or legal systems of different jurisdictions or legal traditions (e.g., common law, civil law, religious, customary, mixed). Comparative law is not, in itself, a body of law. Also, works that discuss more than one legal system are often designated "comparative." An excellent guide to comparative law and closely related subjects is Comparative Law, by Paul Norman (GlobaLex). A web site that presents jurisdictions classified by legal system is JuriGlobe (University of Ottawa).

As a practical matter, materials relevant to a particular country may be found in resources designated "comparative" and comparative law research makes use of "foreign law" resources.

Some factors to consider when beginning research:

  • How much one already knows about the law and/or legal system(s) of the jurisdiction(s) involved
  • Knowledge of the relevant language(s)
  • The purpose for which the research is being conducted. (For litigation or a business transaction with a foreign law component, practice-oriented research tools may play a more critical role than for an academic paper. See Legal Practice: Special Considerations).
  • Is this a quick look-up or in-depth research?
  • What legal system (tradition) does the jurisdiction follow (e.g, common law, civil law)? This will have a bearing on the kinds of legal materials that are produced and their respective roles.

(This "getting started" guide assumes little or no knowledge of non-U.S. laws or legal systems or languages other than English.)

Some occasional misconceptions about foreign law research:

That everything has been translated into English; that everything is online; that case law has the same authority and prominence everywhere as in U.S.; that there always exists the equivalent of USCA, Shepards, Keycite; that LexisNexis, Westlaw, and Google are the best (or only) electronic resources for foreign law research.

Limitations of legal texts in translation:

Serious, in-depth research requires original language sources. All translation is an approximation of the original. Legal translation presents special difficulties, as concepts and terminology may differ among jurisdictions, and will often there will not be an analogous term.

Secondary Sources:

Secondary sources, e.g., books, articles, encyclopedias, are usually easier starting points than primary sources (e.g., codes). Secondary sources can provide context, as well as citations to primary sources and/or translations. An especially helpful type of secondary source is the research guide devoted to a particular jurisdiction or topic.

Research Guides:

  • typically provide background on the legal system and legal resources, as well as citations to specific laws
  • may include references to print resources as well as links to electronic resources, but some guides cover electronic resources only.
  • vary in the extent to which they include materials in translation.
  • Basic Guide to Researching Foreign Law, by Mary Rumsey (GlobaLex), is an excellent overview and introduction to the process of foreign law research. It provides much detailed information for researching by jurisdiction and by subject.

Research Guides by Jurisdiction:

  • /database/foreignlawguide/meta
  • GlobaLex (New York University School of Law) publishes excellent guides for individual countries.
  • LLRX.com (Law Librarians Research Exchange) also has such guides. (Note: many of the guides on LLRX.com have been updated on GlobaLex, so it is best to start with GlobaLex.)
  • Foreign and Comparative Law by Country or Region (Prtizker Legal Research Center) Incorporates research guides from GlobaLex and LLRX.com and other research resources.

Research Guides by Subject:

Encyclopedias and other Multi-Country Resources:

  • Legal Systems of the World: A Political, Social, and Cultural Encyclopedia (I,REF K 48 .L44 2002) Short articles place legal system in context.
  • /database/martindale-hubbell/meta
  • International Encyclopaedia of Laws.  Each set in this series is devoted to a particular subject (e.g., contracts, constitutional law, intellectual property) and provides detailed information on the laws of selected countries. Country coverage varies by title.

Finding Books and articles:

NUcat (the library's catalog) to find relavant books. For tips on using NUcat to search for books on a topic, click here.

There are many periodical indexes and full text databases available to help identify articles. See the following page: Finding Articles on Foreign and Comparative Law (Prtizker Legal Research Center).

Browse the shelves . At the Pritzker Legal Research Center, materials on a given country may be shelved in more than one location, with some older materials located in closed shelving. This location chart is a simplified guide to floor locations for foreign, comparative, and international law, arranged by broad geographic areas. However, because a geographic approach is only one way to find relevant materials, one must also use NUcat to locate materials shelved by subject, as well as the periodical indexing sources mentioned above.

Primary Law:

The availability of foreign law source material in the library system varies by jurisdiction and language. For many jurisdictions Internet resources are available to supplement local resources

Primary Law: Hard Copy Sources

Even within broad legal families or traditions, publication patterns vary widely by jurisdiction. Features sometimes encountered that may be unfamiliar to a U.S. legal researcher are: official gazettes; codes (in the civil law sense); case law published in more abbreviated format and possibly in legal periodicals.

In the Pritzker Legal Research Center the major collections of foreign primary law are for the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. Materials of other jurisdictions are collected to a lesser extent, particularly France, Italy, and Germany. With a few exceptions, the library collects at present only in the following languages: English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. English language translations and secondary resource materials, especially books, are collected for all jurisdictions. The library holds historical materials from many jurisdictions, particularly Japan, and in many languages.

Primary Law: Internet Sources:

Both fee-based and free sources of foreign law exist; these may be identified through a research guide (above) or a research portal, such as

LexisNexis and Westlaw for Foreign Law Research:

These can be very useful, for some jurisdictions and for some topics, but they are not comprehensive and files are not always up to date. Always check scope notes (information icon). Quite useful for UK and other commonwealth jurisdictions. Databases available are subject to change. Some useful treatises are available in full text. (Note: the above comments on the limitations of these services are not directed toward the special databases of foreign law that LexisNexis and Westlaw have acquired and make available by separate subscription.)

LexisNexis Available from anywhere to members of the Northwestern Law community

  • Legal  >  Area of Law > By Topic  >  Foreign Laws & Legal Sources
  • Research Tasks > Global Law & Business
  • Foreign Law tab

Westlaw Available from anywhere to members of the Northwestern Law community

  • All databases > International/Worldwide Materials
  • All databases > Topical Materials by Area of Practice > International Law
  • Westlaw International Tab

Legal Practice--Special Considerations:

It may ultimately be necessary to associate foreign counsel. It is prudent to acquire in advance as much knowledge of the laws and legal system as possible.

In legal practice, issues may include: service of process abroad; taking of evidence (discovery); recognition and enforcement of a U.S. judgment by a court in another country. Some of these issues may involve a treaty or have other international law considerations.

U. S. Department of State as a resource:

Practice-oriented treatises--some examples:

  • Germain's Transnational Law Research: A Guide for Attorneys, by Claire Germain. (looseleaf)
    I,REF K 85 .G47 1991
  • Transnational Litigation, by Louise Ellen Teitz (Michie, 1996)
    I, MON K 7615.4 .T45 1996
  • Transnational Litigation in a Nutshell, by George A. Bermann. (Thomson West, 2003)
    (Note: this is a "Nutshell," rather than a treatise.)
    I,MON KF 8940 .P75B47 2003 ON RESERVE
  • A Lawyer's Handbook for Enforcing Foreign Judgements in the United States and Abroad, by Robert E. Lutz (Cambridge University Press, 2007)
    I, MON KF 8729 .L88 2007
  • Litigation of International Disputes in U.S. Courts, by Ved P. Nanda and  David K. Pansius (2nd ed.)
    Westlaw  (LOID database)

Considerations that may influence a transnational legal issue:

  • Treaties, bilateral or multilateral, that may deal with substantive or procedural issues.
  • Conflicts issues (choice of law, choice of forum).
  • Regional arrangements, e.g., European Union legislation as it affects member states.
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