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International Legal Research: Court Decisions

This Guide covers essential print and electronic resources for researching international and foreign law.

Introduction

Like scholarly teachings, judicial decisions are also listed under Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice as a "subsidiary means" for determining the rules of law. Thus, they are considered secondary sources in the international legal system as indicated in the chart of the sources of law. They are therefore not binding, but persuasive authority.

The published decisions or awards of tribunals (including courts, arbitral bodies, or special commissions), even though often lacking effective sanctions or other means of enforcement are important as evidence of international practice, as a source of treaty interpretation or as defining customary law or the general law of nations. Cohen, Berring and Olson, How to Find the Law at p. 486. KF240 .C538 1989 Note that these decisions have no binding force except between the parties as to the particular case. There is no principle of stare decisis or binding precedent; however, international jurists may use them in a number of ways: to direct and interpret a nation’s own international practice; as persuasive or binding authority in that nation; and as a means of establishing international custom and practice. Williams, John W. Research Tips in International Law, 20 Geo. Wash. J. Int’l & Econ. 1, 9 (1986).

See also the following sections of this LibGuide:

EU Court Decisions

Foreign Law Cases

International Criminal Tribunals & Decisions

Finding Arbitral Decisions

International Tribunals

As the judicial organ of the United Nations and only international court with general jurisdiction throughout all countries of the world, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the most important international tribunal, although the volume of cases decided by the ICJ is not so great as one might expect given its age. Only about 130 contentious cases have been brought before the ICJ since its inception. The predecessor of the ICJ is the Permanent Court of International Justice.

Under Article 34 of the ICJ Statute, only states may be parties in cases before the ICJ. IGOs or individuals may not be parties in cases before the ICJ. The ICJ may decide contentious cases, where all state parties have agreed to the Court's jurisdiction, or jurisdiction is authorized by treaty providing that disputes arising under the treaty will be deciced by the ICJ or unilateral declaration by all parties accepting the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ. In addition, unlike a U.S. court, the ICJ may issue advisory opinions upon request of the U.N. Security Council or General Assembly or specialized agencies as authorized by the General Assembly.

Summaries and digests of the ICJ decisions are available in print in the Library and digitally in HeinOnline's United Nations Law Collection. KZ213 .F6 and KZ213 .S8.  Both Lexis (Home > International Law > All International Law Administrative Materials > International Court of Justice Judgments) and Westlaw (Home > International Materials > International Administrative Materials > Multi-National Administrative Materials > International Court of Justice Decisions) provide full text access to ICJ opinions from the court’s inception until the present. Of course, the court has its own website, which provides links to cases in chronological order, starting with current and going back to 1947. The materials available at the ICJ website include court records such as written and oral proceedings (i.e. memorials which are like briefs) and other documents filed in connection with the case. Both advisory and contentious cases are available at the ICJ website. For more information about the ICJ, see the International Court of Just Research Guide at Columbia Law School.

The decisions of the Permanent Court of International Justices (1922-1946) are also available at this website and in print in the Library KZ208 .P47 ser. A/B.PCIJ decisions are also available digitally in the HeinOnline Foreign & International Law Resources Database.

International Legal Materials (ILM), discussed earlier under the Treaties tab contains selected cases from international tribunals. There has been great growth in the number of international courts and tribunals. The Project on International Courts and Tribunals (PICT) created the following chart in an attempt to organize and display all of the various international courts and tribunals, past and present. While PICT has since been discontinued, the chart can still be found via the author's link.

For further information regarding international courts, see iCourts at the Danish National Research Foundation's Centre of Excellence for International Courts and Pluricourts at the Centre for the Study of the Legitimate Roles of the Judiciary in the Global Order.

Foreign Tribunals

International Law Reports (ILR) is one of the few sources that contains both cases from international tribunals and relevant domestic case law from foreign jurisdictions in English translation. The Library has earlier ILR volumes 4 through 46 (1973) and continues to receive the latest ILR volumes in print (2005 to current)  KZ199.I58.

Note that case law is not primary authority in civil law countries. Therefore, cases are not reported as in common law jurisdictions. Thus, they may be difficult to locate and are almost never available in english. However, more and more courts in other countries now have websites, where it may be possible to find some case law in the vernacular i.e. Germany.

The World Legal Information Institute (WLII) is an excellent, free website that provides links to the legislation and courts of other countries. Another excellent tool for researching case law from other countries is a subscription website, the Foreign Law Guide, as discussed under the Foreign Law Codes tab.  

 

Some websites provide access to translations of decisions from foreign tribunals on selected subjects. The Institute for Transnational Law website at the University of Texas at Austin provides access French, German, Austrian and Israeli legal materials in the fields of constitutional, administrative, contract and tort law.

ALR International

The ALR International is an excellent tool for finding domestic case law relating to the interpretation of international treaties. Like ILR, this resource is one of the few that provides access to selected national case law in english. Recent articles in ALR International cover important international treaties which have been interpretted in domestic courts, such as the Refugee Convention and the CISG.

The ALR International follows the same format as earlier sets of American Law Reports, which are familiar to U.S. legal researchers. Unlike law review articles, in which an author typically interprets case law and takes a particular view or position, an ALR article consists only of case summaries (annotations), like a digest. An ALR article simply presents case law from multiple jurisdictions and organizes it so that the researcher can identify litigation trends. The ALR itself is not considered legal authority, but rather a a case finding tool. Thus, one would use the ALR to find case law, which is primary or secondary authority depending upon the legal system and jurisdiction involved.

The ALR International is available in print KZ199 .A44. The electronic version is also searchable via Westlaw but the full text is not available under the Library's current subscription.

 

Hague Justice Portal

The Hague Justice Portal provides access to decisions from a courts and tribunals located in the Hague including the ICJ, Permanent Court of International Justice, Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, International Criminal Court, International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Permanent Court of Arbitration, Special Court for Sierra Leone, Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Hague District Court and Court of Appeal.