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Foreign Law: An Introductory Class Guide

This guide was created for use by attendees at the Summer Success 2011 program held at the Harvard Law School. However, it can be used by anyone embarking on a foreign legal research project.

How to Use These Pages

This guide has been created for use as an introduction to the exciting world of foreign legal research.  It should not be construed as containing all possible foreign legal resources - more and more resources are being created every day, and many foreign legal research tools are not available online.  Please contact our reference desk or Foreign, Comparative and International Law Librarians, via the contact information contained on our "Getting Help" page of this guide.

Resources that are labelled as [Harvard only] should allow access to them via Harvard ID and pin.  If a resource is labelled as [Harvard Law only], you will need to enter your Harvard Law account information. This usually means the first part of your email address (before the @ symbol), and your email password. If that does not work, then try using the first 8 digits of your Harvard ID as the password. If that still does not work, then we suggest the Harvard Law Student Help Desk, during business hours at 617-495-9576, for assistance.

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Glossary of Terms

Below is a selected list of terms that you will commonly come across when conducting foreign legal research.The definitions used below have been taken from various sources as well as created by the authors of this guide.


  • Codes: A compilation of laws and mandatory regulations. (ex. Penal Code)


  • Civil Law: In this type of legal system, case law does not have any precedential value.  In some civil law systems, case law may be starting to take on an appearance of having precedential value.


  • Common Law: in this type of legal system, case law has precedential value. In Anglo-American jurisdictions, it refers to a body of judge-made law. Used in contrast to the phrase of statutory-law.


  • Decrees: broadly used to refer to a court's order. Executive decrees would be issued by the President/Premier/Prime Minister, or as otherwise-named leader of a nation, and are generally published officially in a country's gazette. Could be loosely analogized to an executive order of the President of the United States.  In some regions of the world, the executive is given (or delegated) the power to promulgate decrees by the legislative body, but only for certain subject areas of the law.


  • Directives: As used in the European Union, this is a type of legislation which requires the implementation through national laws of the Member States.


  • Gazettes: The publication timeline of this official government document can vary widely from one country to another. This is the publication in which laws are generally published, officially, for the first time.  Some countries also include publication of treaties within their gazettes. Still others publish executive or ministerial decrees, and regulations, in their official gazettes. For the US, the closest we have to a gazette is the Statutes at Large, where our session laws are first published officially, in chronological order by the date of passage.


  • Regulations: As used in the European Union, this is a type of legislation which does not require the passage of national laws by the Member States, but rather, takes effect immediately upon passage. In the US, regulations are promulgated by administrative agencies and are first published within the Federal Register (arranged in chronological order), and then codified in the Code of Federal Regulations (arranged by subject matter.)


  • Session laws:  In the US, a federal session law is the law how it reads on the date of passage, in its entirety. In other countries, usually a session law will be published within the country's official gazette.


  • Subordinate legislation:  Sometimes used in place of the term, statutory instrument, see below. Necessary to bring public legislation into effect. 


  • Statutory Instrument: A government order, can be very loosely analogized to an executive order or regulation in the U.S. Commonly referred to as delegated legislation, oftentimes they are enacted to flush out the details of a statute as needed to be implemented.