What is International Case Law?

C. Mitchell

In legal contexts, the term “case law” refers to law as it is interpreted through judicial decisions. Case law in practice is a body of legal opinions that lawyers and researchers use to understand how laws that are written in statutes are meant to be applied. “International case law” can mean one of two things. It is either the case law of a country considered international, or not one’s own, or it is any collection of case law that centers on the application of internationally applicable laws, treaties, or regulations. Both are important for different reasons.

Books on international law.
Books on international law.

Every country with a legal system has a developed body of case law. That law acts as an archive of how the courts traditionally enforce the nation’s laws. The case law of a foreign country may be important to a lawyer preparing to represent a client abroad, or to a legal researcher preparing a report on how different countries handle certain issues.

Books containing codes of international law.
Books containing codes of international law.

Researching international case law when it is just the case law of a certain country is usually a relatively simple endeavor. The ease of accessing a country’s case law depends oN how that country has organized its court database system, however. Case law from the United States, Canada, Australia, and nearly all of Europe is widely available both on the Internet and in the courts. Challenges more often come when trying to access records from countries with less-developed legal systems, or with dictatorial or restrictive governments. International law resources like compendiums and issue-specific databases are only as accurate as the cases in them, and are only complete when countries make their laws and legal interpretations available.

In some contexts, “international case law” means more than just the way a country applies its own laws. The term is also frequently used to describe the body of case law from any court around the world that has acceded to a certain international treaty or has handled a case that requires application of more than one country's law. International laws govern how countries interact with each other, and how national laws intersect and overlap. Treaties and international conventions are voluntary agreements that national governments enter into and promise to uphold, usually for some mutual benefit.

Even a body of case law from one's own country is international case law in this context so long as it concerns international laws or an international treaty. Environmental protection, child trafficking, commercial dealing, and human rights standards are among the most common and widely agreed-to international treaties. Researchers often examine case law from various countries that implicates treaty-covered material as a way of understanding how different countries apply treaty language, as well as a means of determining if any countries are improperly interpreting a treaty or failing to implement a treaty at all.

International case law related to interpretation of international treaties and agreements is usually of primary interest to international organizations such as the United Nations (UN). Lawyers and researchers working for the UN engage in almost constant international case law study in order to chart patterns, look for improvements, and understand what is working and what is not. Advocates for certain issues, particularly those related to the environment or human rights, use international case law research to aid in lobbying efforts to change legislation, influence government foreign aid packages, and raise public awareness.

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