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Research Support Guide for Law Postgraduate Students and Academic Staff

Research support assistance and useful library resources for Postgraduate students and Academic Staff

Foreign Law vs International Law

What is 'foreign law'?

Foreign law is the law of another country, including cases decided in that legal system

What is 'International law'?

Generally speaking, it can be defined as a body of rules established by custom or treaty and recognized by nations as binding in their relations with one another. International law also relates to the functioning of non-State entities whose functioning is within the international community (examples of this are for instance UNICEF)

Why is this distinction important?

If South Africa is a party to a treaty/custom in International Law, then that treaty is legally binding on South Africa. Foreign law is not legally binding but can be considered in court cases (as demonstrated here in Section 39 of the Constitution):

39.   Interpretation of Bill of Rights.—(1)  When interpreting the Bill of Rights, a court, tribunal, or forum—


must promote the values that underlie an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality, and freedom;


must consider international law; and


may consider foreign law.

(2)  When interpreting any legislation, and when developing the common law or customary law, every court, tribunal, or forum must promote the spirit, purport, and objects of the Bill of Rights.

(3)  The Bill of Rights does not deny the existence of any other rights or freedoms that are recognised or conferred by common law, customary law or legislation, to the extent that they are consistent with the Bill.

Which Database Should I Use to Search Foreign Law


HeinOnline contains US materials (cases, legislation) as well as some international materials and classical legal materials. It also contains a large number of law journals, including South African law journals.

Heinonline is a useful database for researching law - especially with regards to journal articles, treaties, foreign case law (especially US) as well as other international materials.

Heinonline has an easy to use search box at the top that can be used to conduct a quick search.

Alternatively, you can select the area which you want to search within (eg. Law Journal Library) from the contents on the left of the screen.

Search for journal articles quickly by typing in your search query at the top search box, then using the dropdown option and select 'Law Journal Library' instead of 'All subscribed collections'.

If you want to search for articles within a specific journal - you can look for the journal by selecting "Law Journal Library" from the contents and then using the A-Z list to locate your journal. Once you have clicked on a journal title, a list will open which allows you either to search through the contents of different volumes or to conduct a search within the title by simply typing in your query and clicking 'search'.

If you are interested in finding articles by a specific author that you know (such as Dr Chuma Himonga) you can access the 'advanced search' option under the search bar and then in the 'author' box type in the author's surname only. If it is a common surname, you can add the authors name after the surname (eg. Himonga, Chuma).

The results list will then display only articles written by your chosen author.

By using the 'Citation Navigator' tab it is possible to quickly access an article if you know the citation. Simply type in your citation and click 'Get Citation'

A citation in Heinonline should look like this (using Volume 7 of the Journal of Comparative Law as an example):

7 J. Comp. L. 1

It can be broken down into Volume Journal Abbreviation Page Number

To find the citation of a journal you can click on 'Find Bluebook Citation' which allows you to brows alphabetically the titles and find their citations.

Once you have conducted your search you can refine your search on using the options on the left hand tab as follows:

Section Type - this refers to the type of document such as an article vs a case. You can filter this to only view the type you are searching for

Subject - this refers to the subject area within which it falls in such as company law

Titles - refers to where it is published so you can filter by title

Country Published - you can refine this to only look at specific countries's publication (such as South Africa)

State - this allows you to refine to a specific US state in which it is published in

Dates - you can refine to reflect certain periods (such as 2010 - date)


This site includes sections on foreign, international and comparative law. The section devoted to foreign law includes excellent summaries of legal research in a wide range of countries and jurisdictions including links to resources where available.

You can access Globalex at:

International Instruments

International Law is primarily made up of statutory instruments and practice.

A great introductory guide on international law and its sources is contained in the following GlobaLex Guide which gives a good overview of the different bodies at play in international law as well as the different sources.

Public Law Library

The Public Library of Law is the world’s largest online database of free law. It brings free materials from across the Web together in one place, and adds hundreds of volumes of law that has previously only been available with a subscription.

You can access the library here:


This site collects laws, treaties, cases, journals and other materials from around the world. It covers both foreign and international law.

A detailed training guide can be found at the following link:


University of the Western Cape,

Robert Sobukwe Road,



Tel: 021 959 2946