When beginning any legal research problem involving a country other than the United States, it's good to keep in mind that foreign legal systems may treat particular types of law very differently in terms of importance. For example, civil law systems primarily use codes to organize legal principles, wherease in common law systems, judicial decisions and the system of precedent co-exist with legislation as the dominant forms of law.  As such, you'll want to have atleast a basic grasp of the legal system in your country of interest.

In general, the two most dominant forms of legal systems are civil law and common law. Religious legal systems also form the primary legal tradition in an number of nations. Most legal systems through out world could be classified as one of these types of systems---civil law, common law, religious law--or as a combination of any these three. Certain jurisdicions also make use of customary law, which is less formal and usually is not written or codified.


One of quickest and most efficient ways to determine what kind of legal system you are dealing with is to use Juriglobe, from the University of Ottawa.

Of immediate an obvious value will be the color coded global map of legal systems. As you will see, civil law systems dominate throughout Europe, Latin America, Asia, and many parts of Africa. Common law forms the basis of most of the legal systems formerly assoicated with the British Empire, including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many others.

In addition to the global map of legal systems, on the left hand side of the page, you can find links to regional maps. You can also simply look up the legal system of any country in the world, either through an alphabetical index of nations, or by type of legal system (e.g. civil law, common law, mixed, etc.) 

Further Research

If your research requires a deeper understanding of the nature of the two dominal legal systems-civil law and common law-see this Primer on civil law systems from Federal Judicial Center. It also has a valuable section comparing and contrasting such systems with those of common law nations.

For an in-depth discussion on the individual legal systems of most of the nations of the world, including the types of legal sources available and how to access them, visit Brill’s Foreign Law Guide.

For additional questions on foreign and international legal research, contact Sunil Rao, Foreign and International Law Librarian. 

Submitted by Sunil Rao, on November 18, 2020

This article appears in the categories: Law Library

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