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Precedents: Lawmaking Through International Adjudication

  • Marc Jacob


This paper deals with the role of judicial decisions in international adjudication. It is impossible to fail to notice the abundance of prior cases invoked in decisions of international tribunals and that, in order to find out what the law actually is, reference to previous cases is all but inevitable in practice. In some areas of international law, judicial or arbitral decisions have even been said to be the centre of progressive development. Nevertheless, there is an undeniable and deeply-rooted professional trepidation in many parts of the world regarding this enduring phenomenon. Even absent a fully articulated theory of adjudication or legal reasoning, the very idea of “judicial lawmaking” tends to arouse instinctive suspicion, especially when coupled with a denial of any restraining force of prior cases. Be that as it may, observations to the extent that judicial decisions are not veritable sources of international law or only binding between the parties in a particular dispute are only the beginning, and far from the end, of the present inquiry. Several interrelated and intricate questions need to be disentangled and dealt with in order to get a better grasp on what is commonly, and often rather unhelpfully, lumped together loosely under the vague label of “judicial precedent.” The paper is hence partly descriptive and partly revisionary. I do not however intend to rehash general criticisms or defences of precedent. Instead, I aim to present precedent as a general and omnipresent jurisprudential concept that enables and constrains judicial decision-making even in seemingly ordinary cases and to then showcase the specificities of one particular legal system in this respect, namely public international law. Hopefully this provides some of the methodological groundwork for other questions central to the present project, not least concerning the legitimacy of judicial lawmaking.

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1 McNair, Arnold Duncan, The International Court of Justice 9 (1949).

2 See, e.g., Statute of the International Court of Justice (ICJ Statute), 26 June 1945, UNTS, vol. 33, 993, Arts 38(1)(d) & 59.

3 See Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Zur Genealogie der Moral III 12 (1887).

4 It is however conceivable that underlying rules or principles could indirectly be violated, thereby triggering some form of legal consequence.

5 Cross, Rupert & Harris, James W., Precedent in English Law 3 (1991).

6 Dolzer, Rudolf & Schreuer, Christoph, Principles of International Investment Law 36 (2008).

7 AES Corp. v. Argentina, Decision on Jurisdiction, 26 April 2005, 12 ICSID Reports 312, para. 23.

8 Duxbury, Neil, The Nature and Authority of Precedent ch. 1 (2008).

9 See Schauer, Frederick, Precedent, 39 Stanford Law Review 571 (1987) (noting the logical semblance between argumentation and justification).

10 Id., 572.

11 Cf. MacCormick, Neil & Summers, Robert, Further General Reflections and Conclusions, in: Interpreting Precedents, 531-532 (Neil MacCormick & Robert Summers eds, 1997).

12 See Koskenniemi, Martti, Methodology of International Law, in: The Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law, margin numbers 7, 24 (Rüdiger Wolfrum ed., 2007), available at:

13 See Scelle, Georges, Précis de droit des gens: principes et systématique 6 (1932) (for the former view); Hans Kelsen, Reine Rechtslehre 64 (1934) (on the latter position).

14 See Verdross, Alfred & Simma, Bruno, Universelles Völkerrecht: Theorie und Praxis para. 618 (1984). Although even this is strongly contested, cf. Allan Pellet, Article 38, in: The Statute of the International Court of Justice - A Commentary (Andreas Zimmermann, Christian Tomuschat & Karin Oellers-Frahm eds, 2006), 784 (insisting, as the mainstream does, that the ICJ's jurisprudence is not a real source of law but merely a documentary “source” in the sense of a resource or investigatory tool).

15 See Brownlie, Ian, Principles of Public International Law 19-20 (2008).

16 Subsequently published as Lord Reid, The Judge as Law Maker, 12 Journal of the Society of Public Law Teachers 22 (1972).

17 See, e.g., Hutchinson, Allan C., Evolution and the Common Law 98 (2005) (“messy, episodic, and self-correcting”).

18 See Howse, Robert, Moving the WTO Forward - One Case at a Time, 42 Cornell International Law Journal 223, 230 (2009) (albeit professing to “common law prejudice”).

19 See, e.g., Thomas, Edward W., The Judicial Process 3 (2005).

20 Examples of the former include the Realists and the Critical Legal Studies movement. On resuscitating liberal democratic ideals, see, e.g., Jeremy Waldron, The Dignity of Legislation 2 (1999).

21 See, e.g., Bernd Rüthers, Rechtstheorie: Begriff, Geltung und Anwendung des Rechts 160-162, 505-567 (2008) (with further references). The idea of gaps in the law is of course itself an enduring controversy.

22 See, e.g., Marion Eckertz-Höfer, “Vom guten Richter” - Ethos, Unabhängigkeit, Professionalität, 62 Die Öffentliche Verwaltung 729, 733 (2009) (“It is a platitude, that … even in their everydaily dealings … judges make law. Judicial decision-making is hardly ever simple cognition of the law, but also regularly law-production.”); Josef Esser, Vorverständnis und Methodenwahl in der Rechtsfindung 174-177 (1970).

23 See, e.g., Atiyah, Patrick S., Pragmatism and Theory in English Law 2-3 (1987).

24 See, e.g., only Kelsen (note 13), 78; Gerald Gray Fitzmaurice, Some Problems Regarding the Formal Sources of Law, in: Symbolae Verzijl: Présentées au Prof. J. H. W. Verzijl, á l'Occasion de son LXX-ième Anniversaire, 174 (Frederik Mari van Asbeck ed., 1958).

25 See, e.g., Joxerramon Bengoetxea, Neil MacCormick & Soriano, Leonor M., Integration and Integrity in the Legal Reasoning of the European Court of Justice, in: The European Court of Justice (Gráinne De Búrca & Joseph H. H. Weiler eds, 2001).

26 Cf. Peczenik, Aleksander, Jumps and Logic in the Law, 4 Artificial Intelligence and Law 297 (1996).

27 Certainly the doyens of modern positivism conceded the existence of a form of judicial discretion either on account of the open linguistic texture of law or because of the flexibility of the posited legal standards and the rapidness of social change, see Herbert L. A. Hart, The Concept of Law 124-128 (1961) and Kelsen (note 13), 97-99.

28 Nationality Decrees Issued in Tunis and Morocco, PCIJ 1923, Series C, No. 2, 58 (Prof. de Lapradelle's speech).

29 More on this infra section E.

30 See Rosenne, Shabtai, 3 The Law and Practice of the International Court 1920-2005 1553 (2006) (recognizing the value of a precedent without any need for “difficult theories of judicial legislation”); Stephen M. Schwebel, The Contribution of the International Court of Justice to the Development of International Law, in: International Law and The Hague's 750th Anniversary, 407 (Wybo P. Heere ed., 1999).

31 See Verdross & Simma (note 14), para. 619.

32 Schiemann, Konrad, Vom Richter des Common Law zum Richter des Europäischen Rechts 8-9 (2005).

33 Sweet, Alec Stone, The Judicial Construction of Europe 10 (2004) (“precedent camouflages lawmaking, while enabling it”).

34 Cf. Schulze, Reiner & Seif, Ulrike, Einführung, in: Richterrecht und Rechtsfortbildung in der Europäischen Rechtsgemeinschaft, 8-9 (Reiner Schulze & Ulrike Seif eds, 2003).

35 See Kennedy, Duncan, A Critique of Adjudication: Fin de Siècle 26, 37 (1997).

36 See Perry, Stephen R., Judicial Obligation, Precedent and the Common Law, 7 Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 215, 243 (1987).

37 Cf. Jennings, Robert Y., The Role of the International Court of Justice, 68 The British Yearbook of International Law 1, 43 (1997).

38 This is an admittedly minimalistic conception of a system focusing mainly on the fact of interdependence of individual decisions without necessarily imputing a deeper meaning or underlying logic to these connections. Legal system is further used interchangeably with legal order. Cf. infra sections C.III. and C.V.

39 See Bernhardt, Rudolf, Article 59, in: The Statute of the International Court of Justice - A Commentary (Andreas Zimmermann, Christian Tomuschat & Karin Oellers-Frahm eds, 2006), 1232, 1244. While Lauterpacht disagreed that Art. 59 deals with precedent in general, the preponderance of literature suggests this was indeed intended by the committee of jurists responsible for the ICJ Statute. See Hersch Lauterpacht, The Development of International Law by the International Court 8 (1958). Cf. Max S⊘rensen, Les Sources du Droit International: Etude sur la Jurisprudence de la Cour Permanente de Justice Internationale 161 (1946); Hudson, Manley O., The Permanent Court of International Justice 1920-1942 207 (1943); Maarten, Bos, The Interpretation of International Judicial Decisions, 33 Revista Española de Derecho Internacional 11, 46 (1981).

40 See, e.g., Wróblewski, Jerzy, The Judicial Application of Law 270, 273 (1992); Siltala, Raimo, A Theory of Precedent: From Analytical Positivism to a Post-Analytical Philosophy of Law 76-105 (2000).

41 For a rather unabashed attempt, see, e.g., Case concerning Pulp Mills on the River Uruguay (Argentina v. Uruguay), Separate Opinion of Judge Cançado Trindade, 20 April 2010, paras 3-5.

42 Stone Sweet (note 33), 4.

43 See Calabresi, Guido, A Common Law for the Age of Statutes 4 (1982); Atiyah, Patrick S. & Summers, Robert, Form and Substance in Anglo-American Law 116-117 (1987).

44 Cf. Joseph, Raz, The Authority of Law 195 (1979).

45 See Peczenik, Aleksander, The Binding Force of Precedent, in: Interpreting Precedents, 475-478 (Neil MacCormick & Robert Summers eds, 1997).

46 Llewellyn, Karl N., The Common Law Tradition: Deciding Appeals 62 (1960). Note in this respect also Allen's important but often overlooked insistence that throughout history judges have frequently made it clear that there is no magic in the mere citation of precedents: Carleton Kemp Allen, Law in the Making 212-213 (1958).

47 Bernhardt (note 39), 1244 (but immediately observing that reality differs from this rarefied suggestion).

48 See, e.g., id.; Mohamed Shahabuddeen, Precedent in the World Court 29-31 (1996).

49 See supra section B.IV.

50 See Friedmann, Wolfgang Gaston, Law in a Changing Society 84-85 (1972).

51 That is of course not to say that precedent argumentation is normatively or ideologically abstemious. See, in particular, infra section D.IV.

52 Barcelona Traction, Light and Power Company, Limited, Judgment of 5 February 1970, Separate Opinion of Judge Jessup, ICJ Reports 1970, 163, para. 9.

53 See, e.g., Gerhardt, Michael J., The Power of Precedent 79 (2008).

54 Provisions to similar effect might be said to be Art. 20(3) of the German Basic Law or Art. 5 of the French Civil Code. These of course have their own systemic implications.

55 PCIJ 1926, Series A., No. 7, 19.

56 Case concerning the Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro), ICJ Judgment of 26 February 2007, ICJ Reports 2007, 44, para. 115. On the relation between res judicata and precedent, see infra section C.IV.

57 Waldock, Humphrey Meredith, General Course on Public International Law, 106 Recueil des Cours 91 (1962). The advisory committee was beset by some fairly quixotic views on precedent, with some drafts assuming the Court's decisions might have the authority of rules of international law, see Shahabuddeen (note 48), 49-52.

58 See, e.g., McCown, Margaret, Precedent and Judicial Decision Making: The Judge Made Law of the European Court of Justice, American Political Science Association Annual Conference, 29 August - 1 September 2001, Panel 27-3: Law, Politics, and Power: Contrasting Comparative Perspectives (quantifying inter alia the proportion of cases citing precedent, precedent life-span, date, cluster density, as well as form and legal domain of cases).

59 Application for Revision of the Judgment of 11 July 1996 in the Case concerning Application of the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Yugoslavia), Preliminary Objections (Yugoslavia v. Bosnia and Herzegovina), Judgment of 3 February 2003, ICJ Reports 2003, 30, paras 69-71. The Court had previously skirted the issue: Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Provisional Measures, Order of 8 April 1993, ICJ Reports 1993, 14, paras 17-18.

60 Legality of Use of Force (Serbia and Montenegro v. Belgium), Preliminary Objections, Judgment of 15 December 2004, ICJ Reports 2004, 279, para. 91 (the main argument being that the 2000 admission of the FRY to the UN revealed retroactively that it had not been a member).

61 Case concerning Application of the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro), Judgment of 26 February 2007, ICJ Reports 2007, 51, para. 135.

62 Cf. Kelsen, Hans, Law and Peace in International Relations 161-163 (1997).

63 This may certainly be a tendency within the so-called Continental, and in particular German, legal tradition. Cf. supra section B.III.

64 Lauterpacht (note 39), 252-253.

65 PCIJ 1939, Series A/B, No. 79, 199 (focusing solely on the prevention of acts likely to prejudice rights resulting from the impending judgment).

66 Denunciation of the Treaty of 1865 between Belgium and China, PCIJ 1927, Series A, No. 8, 7.

67 See Weinreb, Lloyd L., Legal Reason: The Use of Analogy in Legal Argument 29 (2005).

68 See Sunstein, Cass R., On Analogical Reasoning, 106 Harvard Law Review 741, 743 (1993).

69 See Brewer, Scott, Exemplary Reasoning: Semantics, Pragmatics, and the Rational Force of Legal Argument by Analogy, 109 Harvard Law Review 923, 934 (1996).

70 Although its application is then often tempered by the demand for the existence of an unintended regulatory gap, itself a perennial debate beyond the remit of this paper.

71 Cf. Goldman, Alvin I., Epistemology and Cognition 301 (1986).

72 See Case concerning the Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro), Judgment of 26 February 2007, 44, para. 116.

73 This in fact did not reach its final definitive form until the beginning of the 19th century, with the locus classicus usually claimed to be Baron Parke's exposition in Mirehouse v. Rennell, 1 Cl & F 527, 546. On this and Bracton, see Allen (note 46), 184-186, 227-228.

74 Cf. Ladeur, Karl-Heinz & Augsberg, Ino, Auslegungsparadoxien: Zur Theorie und Praxis Juristischer Interpretation, 36 Rechtstheorie 143, 164 (2005).

75 Naturally there comes a point where nothing useful can be added. Moreover, this does not doubt the general wisdom that succinctness rather than prolixity is the key to good legal drafting and pleading.

76 Schwarzenberger, Georg, 1 International Law as Applied by International Courts and Tribunals § I 32 (1957).

77 Llewellyn (note 46), 76.

78 Some commentators like to point to “sameness”, others to “similarity” as the linking factors between two cases. The position adopted here is that the situations need to be the same only as concerns the relevant matters, which is casually expressed by saying the cases are similar or comparable.

79 These expressions are preferable to the term ratio decidendi, which invokes many uncalled for assumptions.

80 See Marshall, Geoffrey, What is Binding in a Precedent, in: Interpreting Precedents: A Comparative Study, 503 (Neil MacCormick & Robert Summers eds, 1997).

81 See, e.g., Wambaugh, Eugene, The Study of Cases 8 (1894); Goodheart, Arthur, Determining the Ratio Decidendi of a Case, in: Essays in Jurisprudence and the Common Law, 4-25 (Arthur Goodheart ed., 1931).

82 See, e.g., Langenbucher, Katja, Die Entwicklung und Auslegung von Richterrecht 77-93 (1996).

83 See, e.g., Cohen, Felix S., The Problems of a Functional Jurisprudence, 1 Modern Law Review 5, 20 (1937).

84 Sunstein (note 68), 745-746. Llewellyn's golf metaphor pertains: “Onto the green, with luck, your science takes you. But when it comes to putting you will work by art and hunch.” See Karl N. Llewellyn, The Bramble Bush 42-43 (1930).

85 But see Schauer (note 9), 587, 579.

86 See, e.g., Martin Morlok, Neue Erkenntnisse und Entwicklungen aus Sprach- und Rechtswissenschaftlicher Sicht, in: Präjudiz und Sprache, 33-34 (Bernhard Ehrenzeller, Peter Gomez, Markus Kotzur, Daniel Thürer & Klaus A. Vallender eds, 2008).

87 Lotus, Judgment of 7 September 1927, PCIJ 1927, Series A, No. 10, 26 (distinguishing the Costa Rica Packet arbitration); Preliminary Objections, Judgment of 24 July 1964, ICJ Reports 1964, 28-30 (distinguishing Aerial Incident of 27 July 1955). See also William Eric Beckett, Les Questions d'Intérět Général au Point de Vue Juridique dans la Jurisprudence de la Cour Permanente de Justice internationale, 39 Recueil des Cours 135, 138 (1932); Shahabuddeen (note 48), 111 (referring in particular to the many instances in which Monetary Gold was distinguished).

88 Case concerning Territorial and Maritime Dispute between Nicaragua and Honduras in the Caribbean Sea (Nicaragua v. Honduras), Judgment of 8 October 2007, ICJ Reports 2007, 740-746, paras 268-287.

89 Allen (note 46), 187.

90 See Perelman, Chaim, Logique Juridique, Nouvelle Rhétorique 129 (1976).

91 See Advisory Opinion of 21 June 1971, ICJ Reports 1971, 23, paras 30-31 and Advisory Opinion of 23 July 1923, PCIJ 1923, Series B, No. 5, 27.

92 See, e.g., Lotus (note 87), 26 and Arrest Warrant of 11 April 2000 (Democratic Republic of the Congo v. Belgium), Judgment of 14 February 2002, Joint Separate Opinion of Judges Higgins, Kooijmans and Buergenthal, ICJ Reports 2002, 89, para. 88 (expressing puzzlement at the Court's reliance on Factory at Chorzów).

93 Although distinguishing could also be seen as a form of departure. Perhaps it is hence best to adopt Llewellyn's more prosaic phrase of “killing the precedent”.

94 See, e.g., Namibia, ICJ Reports 1971, 18, para. 9.

95 Admission of the FRY to the UN was used as a device to avoid a universal position on its “access” to the ICJ.

96 See, e.g., the Electricity Company of Sofia and Bulgaria Case, the jurisprudence on recourse to the travaux préparatoires (shifting from impermissible if a treaty is clear to an apparently freely available aid to interpretation), and the role of equity in the law of maritime delineation in Tunisia/Libya. On the latter, see Prosper Weil, The Law of Maritime Delimitation: Reflections 172-173 (trans. By Maureen MacGlashan, 1989).

97 But note that the obverse is not true, as evinced by the ECJ and European Court of Human Rights.

98 Chided, e.g., by Thomas (note 19), 139-153 (referring to an aphorism by R. W. Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”).

99 See Roberto M. Unger, What Should Legal Analysis Become? 72-73, 108-109 (1996) (stating that one of the “dirty little secrets” of jurisprudence is its discomfort with democracy and fear of popular action).

* LL.B. (Lond.), LL.M. (Harvard). Senior Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg, Germany. This is a substantially revised version of a paper that was published in Spanish at UNAM, Mexico City as La Función Sistémica del Precedente: Perspectivas del Derecho Internacional, in: La Justicia Constitucional y Su Internacionalización, 675-716 (Armin von Bogdandy, Eduardo Ferrer Mac-Gregor & Mariela Morales Antoniazzi eds, 2010).

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Precedents: Lawmaking Through International Adjudication

  • Marc Jacob


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