U.S. legal researchers, accustomed to working in a common law system, routinely seek judicial decisions bearing on issues relevant to their matters, and rely on citators in commercial platforms to determine how a case on which they might rely has been treated by subsequent courts (or the legislature). They are likewise comfortable working in a judicial system established by federal, state, and local law, which enjoys power to enforce its decisions, and which typically relies on prior precedent in deciding present cases per the doctrine of stare decisis.
In considering how international courts differ from U.S. courts (or the domestic courts of other nations), and how this might impact one's research strategy, bear the following points in mind:
- Source of authority: International courts are established by treaty, or resolution of intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations.
- Status as primary authority: In contrast to domestic common law systems, judicial decisions are considered merely a "subsidiary" source of international law, with sources such as treaties and custom enjoying greater weight.
- Voluntary participation: States and parties must typically opt in to avail themselves of an international court's jurisdiction, and such courts typically lack the enforcement mechanisms available to domestic courts.
- Precedent: Norms surrounding deference to precedent are not as strong in international courts as they are in common law domestic courts. Furthermore, resources publishing international court decisions do not typically include "citators" allowing researchers to determine whether the decision has been discussed in subsequent matters or courts.
International courts may hear disputes between states, or between states and private parties, and often handle only particular types of disputes (ex. human rights, trade, certain crimes). Arbitral bodies also increasingly handle disputes that arise between states, or between states and private parties, particular in the realm of investment disputes.
Finding International Court Documents
Unlike case materials from domestic courts, which are oftentimes only available in commercial databases or publications, materials from international courts and tribunals are typically quite accessible.
Using Court Websites: Most international courts publish their decisions on the web, and if searching for content surrounding a particular known matter, the court's own website if often the best resource.
- Scope of Coverage: In addition to publishing judgments and/or opinions, international court website also typically provide additional content such as party filings, transcripts or recordings of hearings, and court communications. They also typically offer content for practitioners such as procedural rules and guidance.
- Navigability: Since international courts hear far fewer cases than domestic courts, these materials are often easy to browse.
- Searchability: Search functions on international court sites are typically (though not always!) less sophisticated than those in commercial databases.
Commercial Databases: Some commercial legal research databases offer coverage of international courts, whether providing primary source documents, or coverage in secondary sources.
- Searchability: Commercial legal research databases offer powerful search tools. Users also may be able to search across content from multiple courts.
- Familiarity: U.S. researchers are already familiar with certain of these platforms.
- Secondary Source Coverage: Since most research platforms offering coverage of international courts include secondary sources such as journals and treatises, researchers can search for commentary and analysis while also seeking primary source documents (if available).
- Scope of coverage: With the exception of Oxford Reports on International Law, commercial database coverage of international court content is usually limited, both with respect to courts available, date coverage, and available documents (ex. limited to judgments/opinions)
- Navigability: With, again, the exception of Oxford, navigating to international case content (and most international content in U.S. databases) requires researchers to proactively locate that content.
This guide provides links to both free and commercial sources of documents produced by several major international courts.