Finding Foreign Case Law By Citation: A Practical Guide

By Lyonette Louis-Jacques

The following guide was originally posted to the INT-LAW listserv on July 10, 2014, in response to one of the list’s most frequently asked questions.  What happens when you or a patron have a case law citation, but don’t know how to find the text of the case? Here are a few tips to get you started.

universitylogo1-300x288First, figure out what the abbreviation for the case report stands for.  To do so, use the Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations, a free, online database that allows you to search for the meaning of abbreviations for English language legal publications, from the British Isles, the Commonwealth and the United States, including those covering international and comparative law, as well as a wide selection of major foreign language law publications.

Let’s say you want that famous cannibal case, R v Dudley and Stephens (1884) 14 QBD 273 –  but you don’t know what “QBD” stands for.  Plug it into the Cardiff Index and you will discover as follows:

Q.B.D. L.R.Q.B.D. ; L.R.Q.B.Div. ; Law Rep.Q.B.D. Law Reports, Queen’s Bench Division England & Wales

Now that you know that QBD stands for the “Law Reports, Queen’s Bench Division,” you can search local, nearby library catalogs for holdings, or use a free OPAC or union catalog to find out which libraries near you own it.  I like using Open WorldCat, AMICUS, KVK (Karlsruhe Virtual Catalog), Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and so on.  It depends on what I am trying to locate and whom I know at the library that holds it.

Proceeding with your search for R v Dudley and Stephens, you search a catalog to see which libraries have the 1884 volumes of the Law Reports, Queen’s Bench Division.  Then you have three options:

  1. Contact someone you know at a library that has the volumes, and ask for copies.
  2. Place an interlibrary loan request directly with a particular library.  There might be a document delivery service.
  3. Place an ILL request via OCLC or another established lending and borrowing arrangement.

dudleyIf a case is famous, it may be “Wikipedia’ed,” in which case there is a possibility that the article will contain links to the full text:

If no links are given, you may still be able to locate the full text as reported in a print resource by using Google Books, HathiTrust, Gallica, or one of several other digital libraries.  These virtual libraries digitize older case reports/reporters, so the text of cases are likely to be available here only if the cases are old enough.  Googling the case generally helps to establish a date if you don’t already have one.  There are also the legal information institutes that form part of the Free Access to Law Movement, but the text there might not be exactly as it is in in the QBD or in other print sources.

And you always have a fourth option:

  1. Ask your INT-LAW colleagues for help!


DipLawMatic Dialogues thanks Lyonette Louis-Jacques for granting us permission to edit and post this guide.

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