Free European Sources Online

Free resources can be great – the revamped Eur-lex in operation
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.

However as more and more bodies such as governments make their resources freely available online, the standard of what is being offered to users is improving as well. Legislation sites frequently provide features such as point-in-time searching for legislation, hyperlinking, extensive legislative history footnotes, and links to Hansard debates. With case law , the freely available Legal Information Institutes, and others, offer hyperlinking and cross references to other judgments, and sometimes have keywords, cross linked footnotes, the ability to set up RSS feeds on queries, sophisticated search templates, and relevancy ranking.

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, offering a set of legislative and caselaw 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 listed here under the following headings:

  • 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:

  1. 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
  2. from the top right and bottom left hand sections of every single page – simple, advanced or expert options are provided, with extensive and useful help pages.

For example, entering the number of a regulation – e.g. 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 for some 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 for European national legislation and case law

There is a tab for National Law which 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, even clunky 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.

News Flash! European Sources Online – a database flies free

THE ESO has just announced that it will no longer be a subscription database, but will provide its wealth of links and summaries free of charge. From its website – European Sources Online (ESO) is a free access, added value information service that focuses specifically on Europe. The ESO editorial team, led by Executive Editor Ian Thomson, is based at Cardiff EDC.

ESO provides information on the institutions and activities of the European Union, 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. No other source allows you to find the same range and breadth of information sources focused on Europe.


  1. I am a Canadian who is studying Law in the UK. I am currently taking a Law and Policy of the EU course and the resource that we use to get case law from the Court of Justice is called CURIA and it is also free. It also has a link to EUR-Lex.

    This is the link: