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Researching Latin American Law: Getting Started

Comprehensive legal research guide covering the general region of Latin America and the Caribbean.


Latin American nations generally follow the civil law tradition.  Civil law, which has its roots in Roman law, features reliance on codified law rather than precedential case law.  An excellent introduction to the civil law tradition is noted below. 

Locating, and also interpreting, sources of Latin American law can be extremely challenging even for seasoned legal researchers.  Keep in mind that, when approaching a question related to Latin American law (or foreign law generally), it is often advantageous to start with a secondary source.  There are many useful print sources and online guides in English that can serve as introductions to understanding and researching Latin American law. Some of these resources are listed at right, and others are listed under the "Books," "Databases," and "Web Resources" tabs.

Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile

Understanding Civil Law

An excellent introduction to civil law systems is available via the WWW link listed below. Books on civil law may be located using Loyola's online library catalog (see the "Books" tab for more info).

Map of Legal Systems

Sponsored by the University of Ottawa, JuriGlobe is a multilingual databank that provides general information on world legal systems.  Countries are categorized by type of legal system, and a color-coded map is included that displays the geographic distribution of legal systems.

Chilean Materials in the Dan K. Webb Rare Books Room

The Loyola University Chicago School of Law currently sponsors a formal exchange program with the law school of the Universidad Alberto Hurtado in Santiago, Chile.  Each year, several UAH law faculty and students visit Chicago, and a seminar class from Loyola travels to Santiago during Spring Break. 

Since the program's inception, UAH has periodically donated items related to Chilean law to the Law Library.  Grouped together as the "Universidad Alberto Hurtado Collection," these materials are housed in the Rare Books Room and currently total over twenty items.  The items, which are primarily in Spanish, range from copies of UAH law school periodicals, to an investigative dossier of former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet. 

Use of the materials in the "Universidad Alberto Hurtado Collection" is limited to Loyola law school faculty, staff, current students, and alumni.  Individuals wishing to review any of the UAH items are asked to call the Reference Desk at 312.915.7205 to schedule an appointment.

Guides to Latin American Law and Researching Latin American Law

There are several websites that offer guidance on researching Latin American law. GlobaLex, for example, provides overviews on researching a variety of individual Latin American countries, as well as a general guide to "Researching the Law of Latin America."  Note that many law libraries offer webliographies for individual Latin American countries.  Try Googling "legal research" and the name of the individual country to locate these pages.

Abasto, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Handout on Researching Latin American Law

The following is a handout prepared in conjunction with a talk on the topic of "Researching Latin American Law" for the Latino Caucus (American Association of Law Libraries Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, PA, July 19, 2015). 

Oaxaca, Mexico

Nomenclature & Hierarchy

The nomenclature and hierarchy of Latin American legal instruments can be unwieldy.  This title, published by the Library of Congress, can provide some assistance with understanding both:

Medina, Rubens, and Cecilia Medina-Quiroga, Nomenclature & Hierarchy:  Basic Latin American Legal Sources.  Washington, D.C.:  Library of Congress, 1979.

Plaza de la Revolución, Havana, Cuba

Online Translators

English translations of Latin American legal materials are often difficult to locate and can be unreliable.  Only in rare instances are authoritative English translations available.  If authoritative versions are not available, look for "official" translations that are created by or for a government organization.  Further, look for synoptic translations, which allow for side-by-side comparisons of the vernacular with the English translation.  Some types of Latin American legal materials are translated into English more often than others, such as constitutions and those pertaining to commercial law. 

Many online translators are available on the WWW, but these should be used with caution since web translators do not generally include specialized legal or commercial vocabulary.  Online translators, however, may be of some help in getting the general sense of a document or passage.  Examples of WWW translators are: