Electronic Sources for Comparative Legal Research
Suppose that you would like to do a project that involves comparing a particular body of law across several different national jurisdictions. And suppose, for the sake of illustration, that the body of law in which you are interested is environmental law. How would you go about identifying the applicable environmental statute (or statutes) from each of the jurisdictions you are studying? If you would like to find these statutes in English, where would you find an authoritative translation? Finally, assuming that you’d like to find commentary on these laws, where would you look for law review articles?
In fact, there are many different databases you might look at, both free and subscription-based. But the focus here will be no two subscription databases that are particularly useful. To find the applicable law, you could turn to the Foreign Law Guide. This database provides complete, official citations, and on-line links where available, to statutes organized by jurisdiction, and within jurisdiction by subject. Thus, if you were interested in the environmental law of Brazil, you would “turn to” the chapter on Brazil, scroll to the heading for environmental law, and link to the applicable statute. If there is no link, you would at least have an official citation to the applicable statute, which you could use as a search term in more broadly based search engines. If you still cannot find an electronic version, you could at the very least use the citation to place an inter-library loan request for a photocopy (or PDF) of the printed version. It’s always nice to have an immediate link, but the real value of the Foreign Law Guide is simply to help you identify the applicable law, and to provide a complete, official citation. One other useful feature of the Foreign Law Guide is that it also provides citations (and sometimes links) to authoritative English language translations of the statutes indexed. Thus, if you need to conduct your research in English, the Foreign Law Guide is useful in helping you determine quickly whether your list of jurisdictions is practical.
For commentary, you might want to consult the Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals, as well as the indexes of (mostly) American law reviews, LegalTrac and WilsonWeb. These latter indexes are an important resource because many articles about foreign law are published in American law journals. However, the Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals indexes leading legal periodicals from national jurisdictions around the world, and thus is an important complement to the American indexes. Of course, many (but not all!) of the articles indexed will be in languages other than English, and you should be prepared to work in other languages if you need to use commentary to any great extent. However, the IFLP does provide subject indexing in English, a useful feature that lets you search multiple languages for articles on the same topic. Alternatively, with the statute citations obtained from the Foreign Law Guide, you should be able to do fairly precise keyword searches of titles as well. Finally, those same citations will be useful for full-text searching of the law review files within Lexis and WestLaw. Just keep in mind that Lexis and WestLaw are less comprehensive in their coverage than LegalTrac and WilsonWeb, and should not be used as a substitute for index searches, if you want to do a comprehensive literature search.