Preliminary objections

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We have seen that a Court of Justice is less talkative than a political body, is more aware of its limits. A Court of Justice knows that it must first check whether the conditions are met in order for it to express itself on the merits of a case submitted to it. For, if she spoke without being allowed to do so, it would mean that she would encroach on the sovereignty of the Member States and would, therefore, be both an abuse of power and a violation of the law.

That is why there are preliminary objections in the proceedings of the International Court of Justice. It is also possible to speak of a "objection préliminaire", but it is not really French in procedural language, it is Frenglish. In English, we will say "preliminary objection", we would not say "preliminary exception". The term "exception", in French, comes from Roman law "exceptio" which is an exception to actions.

Preliminary objections give the defendant the opportunity to remind the Court that there is a problem and that it should not decide the merits of the case. It could also happen that the plaintiff tells the Court that it does not have jurisdiction to deal with the case he or she has brought before the Court. This seems paradoxical, but it happened only once in the Court's proceedings in the monetary gold case in 1953. The Court can and does ex officio verify whether the conditions are met in relation to certain issues, for example, the Court must verify whether personal jurisdiction is met, whether the entities that wish to plead before it are indeed States. It does so very regularly, but that is not because it is at the level of the Registrar that it is settled and not at the level of the Court, it does not meet, it does not make an order on this subject. There is also a whole series of natural persons who write to the Court wanting to bring a case against their State before the ICJ, this happens regularly, but it is not possible within the limits of Article 34.

If a case is brought before the Court, it is uncertain whether the dispute really falls within the scope of the exception. For example, there may be a dispute over tariffs on fish caught on the high seas, and the question is whether this is covered by an exception or something else, whether it is still the fishery or the consequences of that fishery that are not covered by the exception clause. The question might arise. One State says that this is covered by its exception clause, so the Court has no jurisdiction, and another State refutes that this is not a fisheries issue, but a customs duty issue. The Court should decide this point because, depending on the answer to be given, the Court has jurisdiction or not. This must be decided. This is then raised to report a disagreement, a preliminary objection.

This is a procedural incident which means that a State submits arguments to the Court to prove that it should not proceed on the merits, but that it should declare itself incompetent or that it should declare the application inadmissible, as the case may be.

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The next step would be to consider the nature of these preliminary objections in the Court's proceedings. The most important regulation of preliminary objections is found in Article 79 of the 1978 Rules of Court. The question of the nature of the preliminary objections raises the fact that they may relate either to jurisdictional aspects, or to admissibility aspects, or to aspects that are not named, such as, for example, an exception that is not categorized and that should normally fall within one or the other. So the question is, what is it that comes under what, in terms of what is "jurisdiction" and what is "admissibility" and why is the distinction made, or is the distinction and is it a rigid distinction or could we have an amphibian situation or a certain exception sometimes on the context, an exception of incompetence and other times, depending on the context, an exception of inadmissibility?

Procedure (Art. 79 of the Regulations of the Court)[edit | edit source]

The regulation does not exclude the possibility that the plaintiff would make a preliminary objection. Paragraph 1 of article 79 is relatively clear in this regard, stating that "any objection raised by a party other than the defendant must be filed...". This means that it is contemplated that a party other than the defendant may raise a preliminary objection. There may be an even more twisted assumption that an intervener in the main proceedings would not be formally the plaintiff, but an intervener, so the cautious wording chosen by the Court when it published these regulations is justified.

There is only one case where the applicant has formulated a preliminary expression. It is highly unlikely that an applicant will make an application and at the same time, shortly thereafter, make a preliminary objection. This is all the more improbable since if a State brings a case before the Court, the government changes, and the government no longer wants to pursue the case before the Court; what it would most normally do would not be to raise a preliminary objection, but the case is withdrawn, it is called a "discontinuance of proceedings", there are certain procedures.

How can the situation whereby Italy in 1954 raised a preliminary exception to its own request be explained? This is a very special situation. Italy's motivation was that there had been a treaty between Italy and the victorious Western powers, namely the United States, the United Kingdom, but also France, with regard to the monetary gold that had been taken in Albania and transferred to Rome in 1943. The question was what would happen to this monetary gold. It was stipulated that if Italy asserted rights over this monetary gold, it had to bring proceedings before the International Court of Justice if it did not do so within a time limit specified in the agreement, Italy would have lost its rights over this monetary gold, it would have waived its rights over the monetary gold. Italy, which wishes to assert its rights in respect of monetary gold, has implemented the provision of the agreement which provided that in this case it must bring the case before the Court, it has submitted the application. At the same time, Italy knew that its claims against monetary gold were rather low against claims that could be made by the victorious Western powers. Therefore, if the Court decided the case on its merits, it risked either losing or falling behind the claims of the Western powers, and this it wanted to avoid.

In order to respect the letter and spirit of the agreement, it has submitted the application, it is not withdrawing, but it is asking the Court to verify whether it has jurisdiction or whether it can exercise its jurisdiction because if the Court were to say "no", this should greatly help Italy. The Court replied that it could not exercise its jurisdiction and Italy was well served. This means that Italy's counsel have found a very ingenious way to respect the conditions set out in the agreement with the victorious powers while avoiding the Court deciding the case on its merits. That is why, in one case, in a hundred years of case law, there was the plaintiff who inserted a preliminary exception into the battle. This is a unique case.

As a matter of principle, nothing prevents a party other than the defendants from asking the Court to verify its jurisdiction or to rule on questions of admissibility.

Suppose now that the defendant raises preliminary objections, there is not a fixed number of exceptions that a defendant can raise, in theory, he could raise as many as he wishes, and sometimes, indeed, it happens that some defendants exaggerate or counsel them, but more often it is governments in cases where there is particular animosity towards the other party. He asks the council to fire with all its might. Thus, in this very long case that occupied the Court throughout the 1990s, and much of the 2000s until 2007, and there is still the avatar of the Croatian case after that, in this case of the genocide between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia and Montenegro and later only Serbia; in this case in 1996, the Court was confronted with about ten preliminary objections, being a fairly large number. From a litigation strategy perspective, as counsel, Professor Kolb would never advise a state to raise many preliminary objections unless there were really many very well-founded ones. Instead, he would advise him to raise as few preliminary objections as possible, but to raise the strongest exceptions and concretize them well. It is always good to appear credible, if you scratch at the bottom of the territories and present arguments of insignificant weakness to the Court, it never gives a very good impression, and in a way, you don't even support the idea that you don't believe too much in the main means because you are still forced to scrape at the bottom of the terroir and present more weak things. Sometimes boards like to do it, because if they are billed by the hour, it saves money.

Suppose now that there are one or more exceptions raised by the defendant, what happens?

At some point in time, a preliminary objection is raised. We are beginning to enter the procedure relating to this exception, which means that the Court will notify this preliminary exception to the opposing party, and at the same time, the procedure on the merits of the case is suspended. Since either jurisdiction or admissibility or both are in dispute, and it is therefore not clear that the Court can rule on the merits of the case, there is no need to discuss the merits of the case at this stage, this procedure must be suspended and parallel proceedings must be initiated to deal with the management of those or the preliminary objections raised. This means, therefore, that after notification and after consultation with the parties, the Court will set a time limit through its President for the opposing party to present its arguments on the preliminary objection. We are therefore entering a procedure that focuses only on these preliminary objections in order to determine their validity.

In this parallel procedure relating to preliminary objections, the roles of the plaintiff and the defendant are reversed. In the much more frequent case of the defendant who raises a preliminary objection, as it is the defendant who raises the plea, he becomes the plaintiff in relation to that plea. The plaintiff becomes the defendant. In other words, in the main proceedings as to relative rights, on the merits, there is a plaintiff and a defendant, State A requests that State B leave the territory, the defendant refuses because it argues that it is its own, the defendant raises a preliminary objection and becomes a plaintiff in relation to that preliminary objection, it asks the Court to do something, i. e. to decline its jurisdiction, to decline the admissibility of the claim, and the original plaintiff becomes the defendant because it defends against that preliminary objection. This has some consequences for the burden of proof, although questions of jurisdiction and admissibility are mainly legal issues where the fact plays a lesser role.

When the procedural documents have been exchanged, i.e. when the reaction has been received within the time limit, it is hoped, on these preliminary objections, and the person who raised them has had the opportunity to respond, the Court moves on to the decision; it will therefore, at some point, the Court will issue a judgment on jurisdiction and/or admissibility. It is always at the last resort for the Court to decide on the reasons and statements put forward by the parties. The parties may present arguments, the Court decides in Article 36§6 of the Statute. The Court only decides if there is a contentious element, if the parties agree, there is no need to decide anything, but if the parties agree here, there would be no procedure on the preliminary objection or objections.

In this Court ruling, the Court has several options. It may reject all the exceptions presented. Let us now assume that there are five preliminary objections and the Court rejects them all one after the other. This already means, first of all, that it is obliged to examine them all because every time it has rejected one, it has also rejected an obstacle that separates it from the bottom, but it still has to pass through several other obstacles before it can say that the road is cleared. In this case, it cannot therefore avoid any exceptions. This means that her analysis may take longer depending on the case and she has no choice but to select. If the Court rejects all these exceptions, it means that it declares that it has jurisdiction or that the application is admissible.

If the Court rejects all the exceptions and rejects them in their entirety, it means that it will declare that they were unfounded and that it therefore has jurisdiction and that the application is admissible. At that point, eo ipso is returned to the merits procedure, i.e. at the same time the President will set time limits for parties to submit briefs and counter-magazines on the merits of the case. The ordinary procedure will now resume its course, there will be a brief against brief, if necessary, a rejoinder, therefore a new set of arguments, then the oral arguments, which are called pleadings, will also be heard, if necessary, by the intervening parties under Articles 62 and 63 of the Statute if there are any, then the Court will withdraw to deliberate and at some point, in this case, there will be decisions on the merits. A decision on the merits by which the Court will say that the plaintiff is wrong, partly right, therefore that it can grant the application in its entirety, partly or completely or that it can reject it. The procedure will have been completed with a binding judgment of the Court under Article 59 of Statute 94§1 of the Charter.

But there are other hypotheses. The Court may partially, but only partially, reject one or more preliminary objections, which is to say logically at the same time as it accepts one or the other partially. Indeed, it is not at all said that the Court must reject a preliminary exception in its entirety, because the exceptions are not necessarily block exceptions, "zero" or "one", the exceptions can be gradual exceptions. A State may argue, for example, in matters of jurisdiction or admissibility that the Court can only hear the merits of a case involving a question of liability and compensation for events occurring on or after a certain date. The Court may consider that this exception is only partially justified, that indeed the scope of its ability to express itself on the merits must be limited to a certain date, but it may find that the date is other than that party to propose. Even more clearly, one party claims that the Court's jurisdiction is unlimited in time, the Court considers that it is on the contrary limited in time and that it can only take into account events from February 1, 2012 onwards because of the jurisdiction or because of a reservation in the jurisdiction or because of various and varied reasons.

If the Court accepts in part one or more preliminary objections, it means that it will declare itself competent and that the application is admissible, but that it will do so in a more limited way. At that time, it will specify the exact scope of the field of its competence. In this example, it will say that it has jurisdiction to judge claims for damages arising from event X, Y or Z provided that they occurred after February 1, 2012. Here again, the Court will have to consider potentially all the arguments raised, i. e. each of the exceptions.

The Court may also grant a preliminary objection in its entirety. Depending on the case, this will put an end to the case, depending on the case because it depends on the type of exception. If the Court accepts an exception which states that it has no jurisdiction to hear the case, and that therefore the Court considers that this exception is well founded, then there is nothing more to be done, the observation has fallen, the rubicon has not been crossed, the Court will not cross it, it will say that it has no jurisdiction and that the case remains as it stands, i.e. that it is struck from the Court's list.

It is also clear that the Court can fully accept a preliminary objection whose scope is not as radical. It may accept in full a preliminary objection that limits its jurisdiction or the scope of the request, but does not exclude it completely. When the Court grants a preliminary objection that automatically terminates the proceedings, i. e. in the case where the preliminary objection says that "you do not have jurisdiction", the Court grants it, in which case the Court is not required to consider all the exceptions.

Let us assume that there are always five preliminary objections and that one of them is of the radical type denying the jurisdiction of the Court, others may be partial, they limit the jurisdiction of the Court, in which case the Court will start, as all indications indicate, with the most radical exception, it is pointless to waste time with exceptions that would only limit jurisdiction if after all this work has been done, we arrive at the last of the exceptions that has a radical scope leading to the fact that the Court does not have jurisdiction. If the Court accepts the radical exception, it has no jurisdiction whatever the fate of the other exceptions, and since these other exceptions can no longer change the legal result, there is no need to examine them and simply waste time. The judge is not there to do legal doctrine, he leaves that to the professor very opportunely. The judge is there to settle disputes, to save the parties time because time is money. The Court is fully aware of this and will not consider the other exceptions.

As a judge, when you look at things, you have a certain obligation to sort them out. We must first get an idea of the merits of each one because it indicates a certain order of review in addition to the formal order which requires that we examine in principle first the grounds for incompetence and only then the grounds for inadmissibility.

There is yet another hypothesis to be considered, namely that the Court may have to say that it has jurisdiction, that the application is admissible too, but that it cannot exercise its jurisdiction. Let us say that there is not a problem of admissibility, there is only one preliminary exception to jurisdiction, the Court rejects it, but it says that it cannot exercise its jurisdiction, it is competent, but it cannot exercise its jurisdiction. It goes without saying that the preliminary objection could cover exactly that.

In which case could this happen, namely a competent Court, but unable to exercise its jurisdiction. There is in principle the possibility of doing something, but there is a factor that inhibits the faculty. A domestic court would not be confronted with such a situation, but an international court may be confronted with it in a case.

It is quite simply because there is no longer any object of the dispute, there is nothing more to be decided on and therefore there is no longer any matter of jurisdiction either because there is nothing more. When there is a matter to be decided on, and now that matter no longer exists because it has burned, because it has been emptied by agreement. There is a hypothesis in which the dispute persists and how? If a State refuses to appear, the Court's jurisdiction is still exercised as provided for in article 53 of the Statute, which states very clearly what happens in the event of default by a party. A party cannot block the jurisdiction of the Court by simply not appearing because otherwise the defendant would be given a very simple way to set aside the jurisdiction it has granted to the Court.

The hypothesis is that of the 1954 monetary gold with Italy in a rather particular role, that of the third country. It is indeed a problem of consent. To what extent could a third State be an inhibitor to the Court's jurisdiction. There may be slightly more specific cases in relation to the third State.

It is not enough for a third State to be affected by the Court's decision because there are many third States that are affected by what the Court says. If, for example, the continental shelf is delimited between two States, the other neighbouring States will always be affected by the delimitation. Third States in the region are still affected if the Court affects a boundary that extends to their territory. This affects them in one way or another, even though it does not mean that the Court cannot exercise its jurisdiction over the parties who submitted the delimitation dispute to it. The Court has been very clear in this regard, saying that even if rights and not just interests are indirectly affected by the judgment, it is not deprived of jurisdiction as in the Nauru phosphates case in 1992 at the preliminary objections stage. These were three States that had committed a wrongful act together and the Applicant, Nauru, brought a case against only one of the three States that had administered in the past. Only one because it was the only one in respect of whom he had a certificate of jurisdiction at the Court. This State argued that the Court cannot judge because "if it condemns me, it finds me responsible", which means that at the same time, the other two States that did not take part in the case are also responsible because three of them committed the wrongful act. The Court declined this argument by saying that it certainly affects these States, but it is an indirect allocation.

But there may be a more radical case. In the Court's vocabulary, if, in order to settle a dispute brought before it by the parties to the proceedings, if, first, in order to be able to settle the dispute, it must determine the legal position of a third State, in the present case, if a third State has committed an unlawful act or not, at that time, the Court will say that the very purpose of the dispute involves taking a position on the rights and obligations of a third State that has not consented to its jurisdiction. Since the Court's jurisdiction is only consensual, it will refuse to exercise jurisdiction in this case which is regularly conferred on it. Since the parties have conferred on it jurisdiction that does not suffer from a defect, there is the problem that in order to exercise it on the merits and to determine who has the right to monetary gold, it is first necessary to determine Albania's legal position, in other words whether or not that State has committed an unlawful act and this without Albania's consent. The very purpose of the dispute is to determine a legal position of a third party. The third party is not simply affected by a decision of the Court whereby the Court arrives without taking into account the rights and duties of the third party, but the rights and duties of the third party are squarely at the heart of the proceedings because everything else follows from that and it is in that case that the Court logically refuses to rule under the principle of consent to rule and that is what it did in the monetary gold case mentioned above.

There are various hypotheses which therefore lead to a decision on jurisdiction and admissibility which will have a content modulated according to the hypotheses seen.

It may happen that the Court is not in a position to rule on one or more preliminary objections at the preliminary proceedings stage. The proceedings on the merits are suspended, preliminary objections are now being dealt with, pleadings and counter-memorials concern jurisdiction and admissibility and not the merits, in this phase the Court may not be in a position to take a final position on a preliminary objection submitted to it. This is the case when this preliminary objection is inextricably linked to the merits of the case. In more prosaic terms, it sometimes happens that in order to be able to judge the merits of this exception, the Court would need more information than it does not have at this stage because the information will only be available when it has heard the pleadings and seen the procedural documents on the merits. In this case, the Court may not decide the issue of preliminary objections at the preliminary stage, but may refer the objection to the merits. In the past, before the revision of the Regulation in 1972 and then in 1978, this was called a "junction on the merits", i.e. the Court joined the preliminary objection at issue on the merits of the case, so the proceedings on the merits, brief against brief, reply rejoinder if necessary, pleadings and after the Court decides and in this case it was still conceivable that the Court would say that it did not have jurisdiction or that the application was not admissible at the merits stage.

In the new Regulation, in its 1978 version, the junction has been abandoned, at least in the vocabulary, but also on the merits, what is now being asked of the Court is to declare whether it considers it justified, that in its opinion, an exception is not exclusively of a preliminary nature, which means that it cannot deal with that exception at the preliminary stage. Between joining the substance and declaring that an exception is not exclusively of a preliminary nature, the cap and white and white and white and cap. This is not entirely true, because in law and other sciences, words matter.

The "junction" was abandoned because it gave the impression of a discretionary power of the Court. The Court may attach to the merits if it considers it appropriate, and it was felt that it no longer wanted the Court to exercise "too" discretion in this regard. From now on, the Court will only refer to the merits if this is unavoidable. This means that the exception is not preliminary because it is so closely linked to the merits that it is in fact a defence to the merits.

The debate is a profound debate is important, because there are two important legal values at stake. Joining on the merits, declaring on the merits, declaring that an exception is not exclusively preliminary, this clearly allows the Court to treat it better and to do it better justice, because the more informed I am about the case, the better I can answer all the ramified and complex questions that this case may present. At the preliminary stage, we do not have all the information, so the quality of the response, the ability to do justice to the argument, is considerably enhanced if the Court can refer these questions to the merits, better even if it could deal with them all on the merits.

There is another side and size. If the Court refers too easily to the substance of the preliminary objections, to the limit, by abolishing the procedure altogether, everything is referred to the substance, the result is obviously unfortunate, especially from the point of view of the States parties to the proceedings, because it means that the procedure is first of all lengthening, that considerable expenses can be incurred while the Court has no jurisdiction, that substantive issues will be dealt with when the Court does not have jurisdiction, which is unfortunate for the defendant because it would obviously mean that he would be obliged to defend a case, to explain himself on the merits, that the court will stick its nose in those very cases where it would not have the right to speak. And it was seen, there is a case like the Barcelona traction in the 1960s in the 1960s with a permanent stop in 1970. This case started in 1962 for 8 years before the Court, which at the time was really a lot, especially since the Court was not very busy. The pleadings are published in 10 volumes. All this, to come about because the Court had joined one or two exceptions to the merits, to arrive at the conclusion that the Court ultimately finds in an elegant short judgment that the applicant does not have a sufficient legal interest to act. The whole exercise to say that there is no legal interest in the action.

Obviously, it is this kind of misadventure that could happen if we go too lightly to the bottom. For the Court, in the end, it is not so bad, for the litigants, certainly not. So that's why change.

Take the example of the case of the genocide Croatia v. Serbia 2008, judgment on jurisdiction and admissibility, the Court declares that three exceptions are not exclusively of a preliminary nature, one of them related to a jurisdictional exception which stated that it was not possible to be held liable for acts that occurred before its existence as an independent State. Whether or not well-founded, the Court considers that it cannot take a final position at this stage because the question is inextricably linked to the merits. The question is whether the State in question can be held responsible as a successor or continuator of the predecessor State, so whether international crimes pass into State successions depends on the type of crime committed and it is therefore necessary to know whether or not certain crimes have been committed to know what may have passed to the successor State. As it is not yet known whether offences have been committed and which ones because it will only be pleaded on the merits, the Court declares that it cannot say so now, but that it must examine them later. She did it at the bottom. This is an example of what would have been a junction before and now is the statement that the exception is not exclusively of a preliminary nature.

A defendant may also, of course, not raise a preliminary objection, but implicitly raise one when pleading on the merits. The Court will not consider the merits of the defence separately in preliminary proceedings because the time limits have expired. The Court considers this argument like all the other arguments put forward at the time of the judgment on the merits.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]