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Foreign and International Law Guide: Foreign Law

This research guide provides basic information on how to conduct research in foreign and international law.

Researching Foreign Law: Getting Started

Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) defines foreign law as "generally, the law of another country". Foreign law covers the national and sub-national (e.g. provincial) laws of other jurisdictions. Not to be confused with comparative law, which is the study of domestic law between or among individual countries. Treaties and other international agreements fall under international law.

Beware before you start researching that access to foreign law varies greatly among legal systems. When beginning to research a legal system, you will want to do the following:

  1. Understand the structure of the foreign legal system.
    • ​​​​Is it a civil law system based on codes, a common law system (such as England) or another? For a quick look at the legal system of particular country, consult JuriGlobe.
  2. Identify the sources of law
    • Does the country publish codes, compilations of statutes, or case reporters? Please keep in mind that governments may or may not publish their sources of law and any published materials may be out of date. If published, the sources may not be in English. Typically, foreign governments do not provide official English translations of their statutes or cases.​​
  3. Identify what you need
    • Do you have a citation to the law, article, etc.? Do you need the complete text of the law, a summary, an English translation, or a detailed explanation or commentary?
    • If the material you need is not owned or available at Cornell, you can request it through either InterLibrary Loan or Borrow Direct.
  4. Use a secondary source
    • ​​Secondary sources are extremely helpful tools to begin your research since these sources describe the law or legal issue, provide commentary, and put the issue into context.

​A recommended manual for conducting foreign legal research is Hoffman & Rumsey's International and Foreign Legal Research: A Coursebook (2d ed., Martinus Nijhoff 2012) which is available online. ​​

Foreign Legal Research Manuals

Symbol Key

Free Web Sites Free web sites available to all

Cornell Community Cornell Community - available to entire Cornell community

Law School Computers Law School Computers - available only using Law School workstations

Password protected-click for password list. Password Protected - access restricted to Law School students and faculty. Members of the Cornell Law School community can access the password list for password-protected databases by clicking HERE.

Personal Password Personal Account - law students and faculty access using personal accounts. Contact the Law Library Reference Desk for more information.

Types of Legal Systems

There is some academic dispute over how to classify or group national legal systems. Most scholars seem to agree that there are five types of legal systems: civil law, common law, customary law, religious law, and mixed legal systems. Many systems are mixed because two or more legal systems operate within the same jurisdiction. The following paragraphs provide only a very general overview of legal systems. 

Common Law

The United States, like most former British colonies, has a common law legal system. While the original common law system consisted of judicial precedents and few statutes, modern common law systems usually express much of their law in statutes. Even in these modern common law systems, however, judicial interpretations of the law (i.e. court decisions) are an important source of law. Statues in common law systems do not usually prescribe comprehensive rules for an entire area of activity (e.g. commerce).

Civil Law

Most civil law systems are based on comprehensive written codes, designed to address an entire area of activity (e.g. criminal law , commerce, civil procedure). Most countries have civil law systems. In these systems, courts ordinarily decide cases only for the parties before them; court decisions do not officially carry any precedential value. Civil law systems originated in Roman law but have evolved in different directions.

Customary Law

Customary law plays a role in some legal systems, though no country operates solely under a customary law system. Customary law tends to govern areas of personal conduct, inheritance, and marriage. Most often, customary law is unwritten and is dispensed by persons with elected or hereditary roles within a small community.

Religious Law

Most religious legal systems based on Islam, although some communities, and one country (Israel), operate in part based on Judaic law. Generally, religious legal systems operate within countries that also have a civil or common law system. Religious law usually applies to issues of personal status (e.g. marriage) and may apply only to some residents of a country.

Mixed Legal Systems

Mixed legal systems are not a separate type of legal system. Instead, they are a useful way to characterize countries that include elements of more than one legal system. Because Quebec and Louisiana operate under some elements of civil law systems, for example, you could say that Canada and and the United States are mixed legal systems.

From Marci Hoffman & Mary Rumsey, International and Foreign Legal Research: A Coursebook 4 (2d ed., Martinus Nijhoff 2012).

JuriGlobe

Formed by professors from the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa, JuriGlobe contains general information about the legal systems and official languages of countries around the world. The site has maps and graphics that allow an easy comparison between countries.

Citing Foreign Legal Sources

Foreign Legal Abbreviations

The Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations​ is a web-based service that allows the user to search for the meaning of abbreviations for English language legal publications, from the British Isles, the Commonwealth and the United States, including those covering international and comparative law. A wide selection of major foreign language law publications is also included. Publications from over 295 jurisdictions are featured in the Index. The database mainly covers law reports and law periodicals, but some legislative publications and major textbooks are also included.

Study Aids

CALI Lessons is an useful learning tool. They are computer-based, interactive tutorials that cover narrow topics of law. On foreign law, CALI offers the following lessons for:

To learn more about other available study aids, including Lexis and Westlaw, press here.

Foreign Law Databases

Cornell University Law Library offers a wide variety of online foreign legal resources, including the ones below. Need help choosing a resource? Contact the Law Library Reference Desk for help.​