One of the frequently asked foreign and comparative law research questions is how to find a country’s civil code. A researcher might not know they need a civil code, but they often do. A civil code is the key to accessing all types of private law for many civil law jurisdictions. Modeled after the Code Napoléon or Code civil des Français (1804), a civil code usually contains laws relating to personal status, contracts, torts, “delict”, “obligations”, real and personal property, inheritance and succession, marriage, divorce, family, parent and child, private international law (conflict of laws/choice of law). See, for example, the Civil Code of Québec, the preliminary provision of which generally states what civil codes encompass: The Civil Code of Québec, in harmony with the Charter of human rights and freedoms (chapter C-12) and the general principles of law, governs persons, relations between persons, and property.
The Civil Code comprises a body of rules which, in all matters within the letter, spirit or object of its provisions, lays down the jus commune, expressly or by implication. In these matters, the Code is the foundation of all other laws, although other laws may complement the Code or make exceptions to it.
And indeed, the Civil Code of Québec’s table of contents is also fairly typical of that of most civil codes (except for the evidence rules). See also the civil codes of Louisiana (and also online at LSU Law) and France. In recent years, some countries have split off some components from their civil codes so you will find countries with separate codes of obligations and contracts, family codes, children’s codes, etc., or related legislative acts. Because of varying codification processes and reforms, it’s good to know how to efficiently locate civil codes or the laws contained therein.
The Foreign Law Guide subscription database is a great source for finding citations to print versions and links to the online texts of civil codes. The FLG was originally called Foreign Law: Current Sources of Codes and Basic Legislation for Jurisdictions of the World, so it is a tool especially designed for this research purpose. It has citations to primary legislative sources for about 190 countries. You can find the civil code for a country by either looking under “Countries” “Country Codes” “Primary Sources” “Civil Code” or under “Laws By Subject” “Civil Country” “Primary Sources” “Civil Code.” You can do a general keyword search in the search bar. Or, if you’re looking for a specific type of law that would normally be in a civil code, you can browse “Laws By Subject” for it. If you’re looking for a country’s tort law, “Obligations and Torts” will give you citations. If it’s the land or property law you’re seeking, you can find it listed under “Construction, Development, Planning & Property.” For a demo on how to search the Foreign Law Guide, check out the FLG video tutorial on YouTube.
If you were looking for the property law of Belgium in the FLG, for example, here is what the FLG entry would look like (note the civil code references):
Another great finding tool is the IALL award-winning, free Internet resource, GlobaLex, hosted at New York University’s Hauser Global Law School Program, and edited by Lucie Olejnikova and Mirela Roznovschi. GlobaLex covers over 100 jurisdictions in its “Foreign Law Research” guides section. Each civil law country guide includes information about or links to that country’s civil code. And Marylin Johnson Raisch’s transnational and comparative family law guide in GlobaLex links to civil codes as well.
Other finding tools are library catalogs. Union, collective, or mega-catalogs like AMICUS, SUDOC, COPAC, RERO, REBIUN, Trove, WorldCat, and the Karlsruhe Virtual Catalog are very helpful for identifying foreign civil codes and which libraries have print holdings or what e-versions are available. For libraries that use Library of Congress subject headings, civil codes are under “Civil law—[country]”. You can do a title alphabetical browse or keyword search for the the name of the country’s civil code in the vernacular or original language. Google Translate can likely help there, or you can use one of my favorite resources, the IATE (InterActive Terminology for Europe, formerly Eurodicautom). If you put in “civil code” with English as a Source Language, you can pick 24 other Target Languages to have it translated into. If you pick DE (German) as the Target Language, then you find out that the “civil code” in German is called “Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch”. Both the Foreign Law Guide and GlobaLex list the vernacular titles of civil codes too. There was a wonderful pathfinder to “Civil Codes on the Web”(Allison Sheffield comp., Vicenç Feliú ed.) which unfortunately was last updated in November 2007.
You can bypass the finding tools and dive directly into the full-text sources of foreign civil codes. I’ve found the World Intellectual Property Organization’s WIPO Lex site to be the best source for civil codes in the vernacular and in translation. WIPO Lex also indicates the dates of the codes – “as amended to XXXX”. See e.g. for Russia’s civil code:
Thank goodness WIPO chose to add entire civil codes as intellectual property-related laws! (WIPO Lex has cool multi-language interfaces too (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Spanish, and Russian)). The Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights’ LandWise database seems to have the same civil codes as WIPO Lex, so you can check there as well. Because civil codes also include nationality and citizenship laws, the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency)’s RefWorld database also includes foreign civil codes. The Organization of American States’ Department of International Law Family and Child Law Network has OAS member state civil codes as well as separate family codes. Civil code harmonization/unification and other projects to make the content of civil codes more uniform will often result in compilations or collections of foreign civil codes or sub-sections thereof.
There also some non-governmental sources for civil codes. For example, this European Civil Law site has civil codes. Tread carefully when using non-governmental or unofficial sources of civil codes. Check for the original sources and dates of the civil codes you find. And look for statements re the civil codes authority. Make sure that the civil codes you find are in force. I think you can use Google to search for civil codes in all these databases and websites. One problem with these sources is that the civil codes may not the most recent versions.
Current civil codes are usually available at government websites (legislatures/parliaments, President or government portal, Ministry of Justice, any ministry or department that covers a civil code topic) so you can use a web search engine to locate them. With Google, a site: search limiting by country’s domain and short form for “gov” in the country’s language helps. New civil codes or amendments thereto are usually published in country official gazettes, so you can search those as well. Several sites have centralized links to government gazettes of law such as University of Michigan (some old links) and FLARE (European countries; see also the European Forum of Official Gazettes). Civil codes are also in country legal databases and Free Access to Law Movement (FALM) Legal Information Institutes (LIIs) for civil law jurisdictions.
If your project involves a search for civil codes for multiple jurisdictions, the vLex subscription database covers over 13 countries and is a good source. LLMC-Digital and the Making of Modern Law: Foreign Primary Sources: 1600-1970 have historical civil codes (as do free digital collections/libraries). There are also regional law databases like NatLaw World ($$$, formerly InterAm for legislation of the Americas), Droit-Afrique (24 francophone Africa countries), Arab Laws Online ($$$), and CIMELS’ Middle Eastern Laws. I recently became aware of CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) Legislation, LexInteramericana, and the Aseanlex subscription databases which may contain civil codes. Libraries like Harvard, Yale, l’Institut suisse de droit compare (ISDC), and the Law Library of Congress sometimes get the most current civil codes in print (see Civil Code of the State of Eritrea 2015, for example), but their holdings might not be reflected in WorldCat because the recently-received civil code is not fully cataloged, so be sure to check the catalogs of likely libraries that might have a current civil code directly.
Don’t forget that sections of civil codes are also available in specialized topical sources. For example, property laws can be in commercial law compilations or summarized in specialized databases like CEPI-CEI’s IMMOLEX.
As I mentioned above, you can locate civil codes in translation in different languages by using WIPO Lex. The Foreign Law Guide and GlobaLex also list translations (usually English-language ones). Library catalogs will have translations. You can also do Google searches for translations – using the language you wish the civil code translated in and the country name or adjective will often do the trick. Someone might have cited a translation already, so you can do full text searches in journal or book databases. My favorites are Westlaw, HeinOnline, JSTOR, Google Books, HathiTrust, and Gallica. But, if I know I’m looking for a civil code in Spanish translation, I look for citations or texts in full-text online sources in español or castellano. Sometimes there’s the odd translation in a database, like, for example, the Mexican Civil Code Annotated (Jorge A. Vargas trans.) is online in Westlaw. Finally, when in doubt or if all else fails, ask a foreign law librarian or a foreign law specialist!
Editor’s note – this article is republished with the permission of the author, with first publication on Slaw – Canada’s online legal magazine – who also granted reprint permission.