Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Finding the Law of Foreign Countries

If it’s true that, as the saying goes, “All politics is local,” it may be equally true that “All law is global.” These days, multinational corporations are keeping abreast of business law developments in every country they call home. American law professors are asked to provide feedback to the drafters of a proposed constitution in Kenya. And more than once, the U.S. Supreme Court has famously looked to court decisions from other countries when considering its domestic jurisprudence on the death penalty and other topics (download a history of such citations from 1789-2005 for free at SSRN).

At this rate, even a lawyer who never leaves the USA in his or her lifetime will need to research foreign and/or comparative law at some point. Fortunately (and unsurprisingly), the use and study of foreign legal materials grew increasingly more popular at the same time that the Internet began to make them easier to locate. While there are still major challenges to accessing foreign law—not every country has the technological infrastructure (or political stability) to maintain legal repositories, and researchers who can’t read the native language will face additional barriers – a number of sources are available, and access to legal materials from other countries continues to widen.

The library’s newly-updated Research Guide to Foreign & Comparative Law contains an entire section of resources devoted to locating legal materials from foreign countries. While many require a current Duke NetID for off-campus access, there are also some great free resources like the University of Texas Foreign Law Translations for selected court opinions; The Rise of Modern Constitutionalism, 1776 - 1849 for historical constitutions; and the Law Library of Congress’s Global Legal Information Network for access to legislation. Duke scholars enjoy a wider variety of online resources, such as two options for constitutions in translation (Constitutions of the Countries & Territories of the World and HeinOnline's World Constitutions Illustrated), the Commercial Laws of the World series online in RIA Checkpoint, and several sources for court decisions.

Still, most foreign law research projects should involve a trip to the Goodson Law Library -- one of the best available online resources, Foreign Law Guide, requires even current Duke Law students to access its wealth of information on law sources from a computer which is physically connected to the Law School network, such as the library workstations. And while anyone can browse the International Encyclopaedia of Laws website to identify whether a particular volume contains discussion of the country you’re researching (such as the “Commercial and Economic Law” monograph’s section on Brazil), you’d need to access the full text in print at the Law Library.

For help with researching the law of a foreign country, be sure to Ask a Librarian.