Free European sources

When we use e-resources in the law, there has been a tendency to value the paid resources over the free ones. Sometimes the free resources are not seen as truly comprehensive collections, whereas the purchased ones are; sometimes the linking and cross referencing is more sophisticated in the commercial databases; often the value-added editorial content of headnotes prepared by legal editors has been enough to justify the outlay for these reports and legislation online.

A recent example of providing the depth of functionality one would expect from a purchased resource is provided by the new version of Eur-Lex, which offers a set of legislative and case law resources that are core for many lawyers in the EU and beyond.

The European Commission’s project to bring together EU law into one comprehensive, free site has been publically available for over 6 months now, and with a new year it seems timely to visit the site and summarise its features. For the infrequent user of EU resources it can appear overwhelming at first glance, but I believe it is both intuitive and user friendly.

The types of documents included in the collection are: Treaties, International Agreements, Legislation, Complementary legislation, Preparatory Acts, Jurisprudence, National implementing measures, National case-law, Parliamentary questions, Consolidated documents, Official Journal C, EFTA.

The system uses a unique identifier for every document, called a CELEX number, regardless of language. It is made up of characters for the sector, digits for the year, characters for the document type, and digits for the document number. A document which explains this clearly is available on the site. This can be useful if you have a citation and do not know what sort of document it refers to. The numbering system appears complex to the novice until one investigates it, and sees that it is actually a cunningly constructed system that accounts for many of the variations of documents that arise in such a multi faceted organisation.

Searching the Eur-lex treasure trove is offered in two ways:

  • by a search widget on the home page, where you can enter a document number if you have one, or create a more advanced search, or
  • from the top right and bottom left hand sections of every page – simple, advanced or expert options are provided, with extensive and useful help pages.

For example, entering the number of a regulation – eg 70/2010 – as a simple search will retrieve all the amending regulations as well as the original. Results can be viewed in html, pdf version or the published OJ version (if applicable).

Not all data has been transferred from the older site yet, so there may still be the need to refer to the previous Eur-Lex site [no longer available] for some of the material. In addition, it is useful to know that the electronic version of the Official Journal of the EU became the Official Version on 1 July 2013. It is published as pdf, in the 24 official languages of the EU, and you can verify the authenticity of electronic signature of the OJ version. This is only possible from the new site.


To find a specific directive you can use the search box in the centre of the home page, entering the year, number and selecting the Directive radio button. The search result will provide you a version in one of 24 official languages, via html, pdf or Official Journal version.

If you wish to compare the text of a directive in various languages, there is a multilingual display allowing side by side display of up to three versions of the same directive. This is not fully operational yet.

Case law

All EU case law is classified by a scheme to enable legal analysis, and that scheme was modified by the 2010 Treaty of Lisbon. The website allows the user to browse this digest by the old or new scheme, or by both, if the topics are the means by which you want to locate cases (for example, 4 of the topics are: the legal order of the European Union; institutional framework of the European Union; legal proceedings and internal policy of the European Union).

However for most of us, the advanced search screen is amazingly detailed and should allow quite specific searches to be undertaken. Once the results are displayed, there is a column on the left that allows you to narrow the search results even more by domain, author, year etc (these are known as facets). Searches that you may re-run regularly can be saved.

RSS feeds

If you register on the site, which is easy to do, you can use the RSS feed service to receive alerts for specific topics. For example, if you search for asbestos, the results screen enables you to create the RSS feed for any updates on the topic, and you can then subscribe via your favourite feed update service.

Subject approach

If you wish to access EU legislation by subject, the Directories option provides a classification scheme for searching by subject – eg, by fisheries, or energy.

Additional resources

The tab for National Law takes you to the official sites for the countries of the EU. Where these are available, they are only in the national languages, and of variable quality. The description of each national database is available in English, however, and provides a very useful summary of the nature of the legislation.

The section on National case law restricts the cases to those with references to EU law. The citation to the case and some more detailed metadata is provided.

Summary opinion

The collections included in the new EUR-Lex were sometimes difficult to use in the past, and frustrating as well, because it was often necessary to search more than one database. This effort by the EU to bring the data together with a common approach, a uniform search capacity, and the ability to personalise the service to the user’s needs, must be applauded. To provide all of this, with no subscription cost for the users, is a model which would be marvellous to see replicated by national governments. The EU is arguably a costly institution for the 350 million Europeans who support it, but it also takes seriously its mandate to keep its citizens informed, to make all the rules, regulations, laws, directives and cases freely available to all – and no longer in a rudimentary system, but by using technology, web design and ontologies of the highest order to provide the depth of quality one has come to expect of the subscription database providers. Not a bad achievement for such a complex collection of resources covering all the aspects of EU law.

European Sources Online – now free

ESO will no longer be a subscription database, but will provide its wealth of links and summaries free of charge. ESO is an added value information service that focuses specifically on Europe. It provides information on the institutions and activities of the EU, the countries, regions and other international organisations of Europe and the issues of importance to European citizens, researchers and stakeholders. It is a dedicated European information service that through expert selection, a wide range of sources, powerful functionality, added value content and a coverage that goes beyond just the EU, really does offer you something more.

Ruth is the Bodleian Law Librarian at the University of Oxford. She moved to Oxford from Melbourne 10 years ago, after a career working both in academia at the University of Melbourne and in private practice in two leading law firms. Her professional interests include issues in legal information literacy, teaching legal research and finding ways of making legal research resources easier to use, which led her to develop LawSauce, a legal resources app, with a colleague.

Email Twitter @oxfordbirds.

This article first appeared on Slaw, Canada’s online legal magazine.

2 thoughts on “Free European sources

  1. Ruth
    Co-incidences abound.
    I am contemplating what to do with a collection of Australian Law Journals ( remember Links with London?).
    and keyed into Google and then I went to Oxford serendipitously and found you are still there but I see with a an electronic foot in Oz. Yesterday I was talin with our young solicitor about 205GTI’s and i said i had been tempted by your beautiful car.
    Scarce as hens teeth now.
    We were in Oxford July 2013 but no doubt you were on leave..
    Best wishes
    John (ex LINK-LIV You no doubt know we are nearly to conveyancing in Australia after 25 years..Search PEXA

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