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Guide to International and Foreign Law Research

What is Foreign Law?

Foreign law is the national law of a country other than the United States; the foreign law of a particular nation state defines the relationships within its borders.  The important primary sources of foreign law will depend on the type of legal system, but will often include the constitutions, statutes, regulations, and court decisions of the particular country you're researching.

This differs from comparative law, which is the study of similarities and differences between two or more countries or legal systems, and international law, which deals with the norms/rules governing relations between two or more nations.

Foreign Law Research in Five Easy Steps

Step 1:  Determine the structure of the legal system you are intending to research.  There is a variety of different legal systems throughout the world.  By first having a solid understanding of how the legal system in the country you are researching operates, you can avoid missing key pieces of law as you continue your research.  

Step 2:  Identify what exactly you need to find--a case, a statute, a regulation, a constitution--and how you need it.  Consider whether you need the source in English or if another language will suffice, whether you require an authentic print copy or an electronic version would work, if you need the full-text of that document or a summary of the document would meet your needs.

Step 3:  Identify the sources of law for the country you're researching and locate those sources.  There are several good electronic resources that can help you get started.

Step 4:  Consult a secondary source.  Secondary sources can be particularly helpful if you prefer to start with a comparative source or you've looked at the Getting Started resources, but weren't able to find what you were looking for.  You can locate secondary sources in relevant research guides, on international law databases, and by searching the library's catalog.  Remember that if the library doesn't have a particular source, you can order it through interlibrary loan.

Step 5:  When all else fails, stop by the Reference Desk, email lawref@law.sc.edu, or call a reference librarian. We're here to help!  Foreign and international legal research is notoriously hard, and this guide only suggests the best places to get started.  Sometimes, it requires a little more digging, so come see a reference librarian, and we can give you some suggestions on what other resources to try.