The top UN court is still short of vital law clerks 60 years after its founding
Sixty years after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was established, the United Nations’ top tribunal still suffers from a shortage of law clerks to assist its 15 sitting judges, who today handle a growing docket of fact-intensive cases, threatening its ability to provide timely judgments, according to its president.
“We can no longer scrape by on a small pool of six shared clerks; at the end of the day, this shortage of assistance is harmful to the client States who use us,” Judge Rosalyn Higgins told the UN’s General Assembly on Thursday, of the body, known as the World Court, which rules on a wide range of international matters, including territorial disputes.
“It is, in reality, astounding that the International Court is the only senior international court without this form of assistance,” she added.
Each judge at the European Court of Justice is assisted by three law clerks, she noted, while the newly established International Criminal Court (ICC) provides a law clerk for each of its 18 judges, and the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) also have a law clerk for each judge.
“Quite simply, the International Court of Justice can no longer provide the service that Member States bringing cases desire if it, as the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, is denied what is routinely accorded to every other senior court,” Judge Higgins said.
The issue is not new – it was raised by a previous president eight years ago and then against six years ago – but has become more urgent.
Case files regularly run to several thousand pages and judges have to conduct hearings that are sometimes unavoidably lengthy. “The situation is even more pressing today given the increasing number of fact-intensive cases and the rising importance of researching, analyzing and evaluating not only doctrinal materials, but also the applicable jurisprudence of other international tribunals as well as the testimony as to alleged facts,” Ms. Higgins said.
While 192 countries are party to the statutes establishing the court, just 67 have accepted its compulsory jurisdiction, but Judge Higgins noted that approximately 300 treaties refer to the Court in settling disputes, reaffirming its central place in a growing web of international law.
The court has 12 cases before it this year, reflecting the typically varied workload, involving cases of territorial disputes, the contested use of force, and the treatment of nationals by other States.
The growth in the number of new courts and tribunals dealing with international disputes has generated concern about the potential for a lack of consistency in the enunciation of legal norms and the attendant risk of fragmentation, but Judge Higgins said those concerns have not proved significant.
She also noted the evolving practice, based on States’ preference, to regard environmental law as part of “what we may term the mainstream of international law.”