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An Interesting European Case Law Database

Today’s topic is the Common Portal of National Case Law, a free search utility (ignore the log-in box) that provides access to selected case law from courts across the European Union.   This database is intriguing because it provides a way to search for substantively like cases across many jurisdictions at once.

The search interface permits the user to select both the search language and the court databases to be searched.  (The instructions suggest not searching more than 5 databases at a time.)  Search terms or phrases must be placed in quotation marks, and concept groups can be connected by the Boolean operators  ‘and’/’or’.  If you first leave out quotation marks, an auto complete feature suggests appropriate keywords as you type in letters.  This might be useful if the concept you’re searching for is associated with a particular term of art.  For example, if you type ‘arrest warrant’ (without quotation marks), the auto complete feature suggests ‘European arrest warrant’ instead.  However, this feature has its limitation.  For example, it also suggests ‘European arrest warrant’ if you type in ‘search warrant’.

To conduct the search across cases in different languages, the search engine translates the search terms, using Google, Eurovoc, and IATE.  (Eurovoc is a thesaurus of synonyms in all European Union languages maintained by the Office of Official Publications.  IATE is an end-user term translation service of the E.U.)  The user is warned that translation works better if only singular terms are used.

Search results can be sorted by date, relevance, or country, and in descending or ascending order.  Decisions can also be viewed in the original language and in translation (as long as the original isn’t a PDF). Translations are performed through the DGT online database, and not all languages can be translated into all other languages.  But this isn’t a problem for English-language users, as English is a translation option for all other languages represented.

Drawbacks include the following.  First, only a selection of courts is represented.  Thus, when I searched for German cases involving the search warrants, I was greatly limited by the fact that the Common Portal includes decisions of the BGH, but not those of the BVG  (constitutional court).   Second, the databases include only go back about 10 years.  Moreover, dates of coverage differ, so the searcher must check each taraget database description to determine exactly what is being searched.  Third, the translations are bad.  As usual, the translation service promises a great deal more than it can deliver, which is often a text so severely garbled that it’s difficult to follow even in the most general terms.

One interesting feature of the Common Portal search utility is the ability it provides to review, and modify (i.e., add to or change) the single translated terms employed in the search.  For example, the user might (when reviewing alternative terms proposed by the various thesauri) choose to include  several context-specific terms in a target language/legal system that correspond to single term of art in the search language/legal system (e.g., “search warrant”). This permits one to greatly refine and improve the search results.  However, it also requires one to be familiar with both the language and legal concepts of the target database(s).  Bottom line: when it comes to finding foreign case law, there is no free lunch.


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