For legal researchers based in the United States of America, foreign law refers to the domestic law of other nations. Comparative law is the study of the differences between the laws of two or more countries, or between two or more legal systems.
The legal systems of most countries fit into the following categories of legal traditions, with many nations combining elements from multiple traditions to form their own unique systems:
|Legal System||Brief Description & Country Examples|
Based on Roman law, the civil law system is comprised of comprehensive codes governing specific areas of law (criminal, civil, commercial, civil procedure, criminal procedure, etc.). Commentaries written by legal scholars interpret, criticize, and develop the law, and these commentaries carry great influence as compared to the lesser weight given to judicial opinions.
The civil law system is perhaps the largest legal tradition and characterizes the systems of most of the countries in continental Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia and Africa.
Legal doctrine in the common law system is developed over time through judicial opinions, rather than from broad comprehensive codes. Judicial decisions are traditionally the most important source of new legal rules in the common law system.
The common law system originated in England, and it can be found today in other nations with a connection to the British Commonwealth. These nations include the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and India.
Customary law is rarely a standalone legal system and is instead typically melded together with elements from other legal traditions. Custom is often rooted in a nation's daily experiences and spiritual/philosophical traditions.
Andorra and the Channel islands of Guernsey (UK) and Jersey (UK) are the only three areas that have what legal scholars today would consider "customary law monosystems," meaning legal systems that are truly derived from customary law and not mixed with other legal traditions.
Religious legal systems are based largely on traditional religious texts. Similar to customary law systems, many nations today have mixed systems with elements of the religious legal system mixed with another legal system, typically civil law.
The religious legal system is most frequently found in areas that practice Islamic or Talmudic law. An example of a religious law monosystem is Saudi Arabia.
Note: Many modern jurisdictions have what are referred to as "mixed" legal systems. These legal systems combine elements from two or more legal systems to reflect the unique needs of that jurisdiction. For example, the Canadian province of Quebec has a mixed legal system that combines elements of both the common and civil law traditions. (For more information on Quebec's particular use of a mixed legal system, see this piece on the Canadian Department of Justice's website.)
If you are interested in learning more about the individual legal systems and the nations which practice those systems, the University of Ottawa's online database JuriGlobe: World Legal Systems is an excellent resource that provides maps, descriptions of the major systems, and lists of the countries practicing each legal system.
Before getting started with research in the area of foreign and comparative law, make sure that what you are seeking is not actually an international law topic.
Public international law can be generally defined as "the law of nations." It encapsulates a variety of different legal subjects, including diplomatic relations, treaties, international organizations, and customary international law. It largely governs and structures the interactions between nation states and international organizations.
The UNC Law Library has a separate research guide that explores public international law research. Please check out this guide for an overview of treaties research, international organizations, and international courts/tribunals.
Private international law describes the body of law which governs when there is a conflict between the citizens of different countries. This body of law is also frequently referred to as "conflict of laws." While you will ultimately end your research process in the domestic law of a specific jurisdiction, you should begin by having a thorough understanding of the proper conflict of laws analysis to use.
The following research guides provide a basic overview of conducting legal research in the area of private international law:
Journal articles provide both background on the major legal systems and allow researchers to trace developments in various fields within foreign and comparative law. Use these resources to gain a deeper understanding of topics of interest and to begin identifying relevant primary law materials that will be important for your research.
Available through HeinOnline, the Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals indexes articles and foreign periodicals by subject, country, and region. The IFLP database coverage includes records from 1984 - present, and records from 1960-1983 can be viewed in the print edition (also available via HeinOnline). The IFLP is a starting place for identifying scholarly articles related to your research areas of interest.
HeinOnline arranges scholarly journals by subject area, and you can view the collections of journals dedicated to foreign and comparative law topics at the following links:
(Note: HeinOnline use is limited to UNC Faculty & Students.)
If you encounter an unfamiliar or incomplete citation during your research process, there are several resources that you can use to identify the complete name of the resource.
In addition to the brief summaries available on JuriGlobe: World Legal Systems, we also recommend reviewing A Primer on the Civil-Law System by James G. Apple & Robert P. Deyling, which is downloadable as a PDF from the Federal Judicial Center.
The following resources are available via the UNC Law Library and provide additional information on the major legal systems:
Students and faculty affiliated with UNC have access to various online legal treatises exploring comparative law topics through Oxford Scholarship Online. The relevant legal treatises for comparative law include:
The following print resources also provide background information on comparative law: