In our catalog of free resources, it seems as if there’s a lot of information that’s fairly readily available once you know what you’re looking for, but it gets harder if you don’t, in those situations where you’ve been thrown into the deep end and need to learn the law in a new area quickly. One resource that might get overlooked is that of all the government agencies. Agency websites can often be great places to look for background information and more in the particular field that the agency is in charge of. And, conveniently, Louisiana State University has compiled an alphabet-soup-like Federal Agency Directory that lists all the federal agencies, from the big, well-known Executive Agencies (like the Department of Labor) to agencies most people may never have heard of (like the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee).
Often, the agency websites will have the actual text of the laws they enforce available and it tends to be much easier to find than looking through the U.S. Code, if you don’t happen to know the citation to the law itself. For example, the DoL has the full text of the Fair Labor Standards Act available as a pdf document on its website. The agencies will also have the regulations and proposed regulations that they have made for each law they enforce, and again, it’s usually much easier to read on the agency website where it’s all in one place, than it is to hunt through the Code of Federal Regulations or the Federal Register for the regulations you’re interested in. Admittedly, some agency websites (like the DoL) will only send you to the relevant part of the CFR on GPOAccess.gov but some of the agencies will have the full text of the regulations on their own website, simplifying things. The agency websites will also have the text of any proposed rules they’ve promulgated recently so you can find out about any new issues and changes in the law. For example, the Department of Education posted a Final Rule on federal foreign aid programs in foreign schools in November of last year– and the rule, as you see, is linked on the website.
Aside from the primary sources of law, however, the agency websites are also very useful because of the more general background information they often provide. They provide everything from brief descriptions of the laws they enforce and any current issues the agency might be keeping an eye on to the more official Guidance documents agencies publish. These guidance documents provide information to the public on what their rights are and how to comply with the laws and can be a great starting point to learn about an area of law. As an example, a company worrying about how to comply with the employment discrimination statutes can easily go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website and find the actual text of the statutes the EEOC, as well as their accompanying regulations, and can also find the various Guidance Documents the EEOC has published. The Guidance Documents usually provide a thorough introduction to all the common issues that arise under that statute and information on how to comply with the law. The Guidance documents can be particularly helpful because they provide a summary, of sorts, of what the law (both statutory and administrative) says and also reflect any major case law in the area, at least up until the date the documents were issued. Also helpful is the fact that the Guidance documents are written and cited as legal documents so any mention of a case is accompanied by its full citation, making it much easier to find the actual text of the case on either Westlaw or Lexis (or a free site) if you need to.
After going through an agency’s website, you are likely to know a lot more about the specific area of law and then, if you need to, can research a lot more effectively using either one of the subscription sites or one of the free sites.
The Gender Justice Observatory is the rare site that includes actual case law. Its focus, as its name suggests, is on women and the law, ranging from reproductive rights to discrimination to violence against women. It has a fairly extensive database of cases having to do with women’s issues from mostly international courts, like the European Court of Human Rights, and some national-level courts. Most cases are accompanied by a brief summary of the case holding along with a pdf file of the decision itself. The summary of the case can be very helpful because it saves a lot of time so that lawyers don’t have to read through the entire case in order to find out if a particular decision will be helpful or relevant or not. It’s possible to search or sort through the cases by the deciding court, the country, the particular issue (e.g. abortion), or the particular law/statute/treaty that the case is based on (e.g. the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.)
The drawbacks of the site are several. The site itself is a little frustrating to use because the search function is rather limited, at best, and requires a lot of browsing rather than simply entering in any keywords. The case summaries are usually in English but the actual decisions are in the native language of the country, which can limit the site’s usefulness as a resource for lawyers in the U.S. It is also rather heavily Euro-centric in the case law it has, although that may have more to do with the fact that it is significantly easier to find cases from European countries/courts than it is in other parts of the world. (The site also doesn’t include any cases from the U.S.)
There is a plethora of other websites dealing with international women’s rights and many places where lawyers can find the main human rights documents, like the texts of the various international Conventions on human rights, but finding case law is much harder. The Gender Justice Observatory, for all its flaws, is one of the few case law sources out there. And, on a positive note, some of its gaps and omissions are filled in by the Legal Resources page of Cornell’s very own Avon Center, although the Avon Center is somewhat more narrowly focused on violence against women specifically, where the Gender Justice Observatory is broader in its scope. Put together, both websites provide a very useful resource for anyone interested in researching the law of international women’s issues.
As an associate editor of the Cornell International Law Journal and as an exchange student at the University of Amsterdam, there have been times when I have had to quickly familiarize myself with the substantive law of the European Union. With very little knowledge of the EU legal system, I relied heavily on law blogs to give me the background necessary to conduct research, cite court cases, and write an intelligible paper on an unfamiliar issue. Below are a couple of the sites that I have found to be very helpful jumping off points.
One great website, geared toward students, academics, and professors, provides excellent summaries of recent cases (http://eulaw.typepad.com/). It also gives detailed background information, breaking down some of the more difficult concepts of EU law. The author cites to relevant case law often, and includes hyperlinks to official versions of the cases, making corroborating the information quick and easy. The only drawbacks of the website are that there is no information about the author, and occasionally the posts, though informative, sound politically charged. Additionally, the site is not comprehensive, in that you cannot find any and all European Court of Justice cases. However, the posts are categorized by subject matter, making searching simple. Although it is probably not a source to ultimately use as authority, it is a great tool in understanding a complex legal system.
Another website that I found useful is a European Court of Justice blog (http://ecjblog.com/). This website is also not comprehensive, offering only a sampling of court cases, but the search function allows a user to sift quickly through relevant cases. For example, if you needed to learn more about the “free movement of goods,” one of the EU’s four freedoms, you can select that subject area under “labels,” which generates a list of appropriate cases. Each case description includes the background, the provisions of EU law at issue, the analysis of the case, and a link to the actual text of the judgment. Additionally, citations and links throughout make checking work much easier. A lawyer specializing in European administrative law oversees the postings on the blog, adding to the credibility of the information presented. Again, while probably not sufficient to use as a citation on its own, the blog provides very helpful information for someone unfamiliar with EU law.