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Comment on Benvenisti & Downs’, ‘National Courts, Domestic Democracy, and the Evolution of International Law’

Published on June 23, 2009        Author: 

Alison MacDonald is an English Barrister at Matrix Chambers and was a Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford from 1999 to 2006. She has acted as counsel before a range of international tribunals including the European Court of Human Rights, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, and in ICSID arbitrations. She has also appeared in cases raising international law issues in English courts, including before the House of Lords.

 In this comment on Benvenisti and Downs’ fascinating article, I set out some thoughts from the perspective of an English legal practitioner.

The English courts have been creative in developing legal rules and principles to avoid adjudicating on what have traditionally been considered to be core executive functions. Benvenisti and Downs describe such rules as ‘avoidance doctrines’, either ‘doctrines which were specifically devised for such matters, like the act of state doctrine, or general doctrines like standing and justiciability’. As they say, such doctrines ‘provided the executive with an effective shield against judicial review under international law.’ The doctrines of justiciability and act of state have fulfilled this function in English law, though their justification has been framed in terms of the courts’ competence to adjudicate on those issues, rather than in terms of protecting the executive from scrutiny, or protecting the courts themselves from difficult decisions or political criticism.

Certainly before the English courts, these ‘avoidance doctrines’ have been significantly eroded in recent years. Benvenisti and Downs’ article suggests that this erosion is part of a broader international trend, at least among ‘national courts from prominent democratic states’. English law continues to recognise an area of non-reviewable executive power, but it is shrinking.

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