Enshrined in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the definition of "refugee" is the subject of much interpretation in national courts. This can have significant ramifications for the many people around the world who seek asylum (or "refugee status") as a means of protection against persecution. A new database produced by the University of Michigan Law School may help to promote more consistent application of international standards by providing access to refugee caselaw from a variety of jurisdictions.
At the time of this writing, selected decisions from high courts in Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. are available. The stated objective is to eventually branch out to other jurisdictions. Although date coverage is not indicated, U.S. decisions from the 1960s are included, while other cases from certain jurisdictions appear to date from the 1980s. Users can choose from several options for searching the database: full text, case name, country of origin of the applicant, court, date of decision, or jurisdiction. An additional search method is by "Hathaway number." A Michigan law professor and one of the database's masterminds, James Hathaway is the author of a well-known treatise in the refugee law community entitled The Law of Refugee Status. The chapter number system utilized in the book has been translated into a "topical" search option in the caselaw database.
Users may further refine their searches with a subsequent search -- effectively conducting a search within a search. This feature can lead to some initial confusion since it is relatively easy to overlook the fact that one is "refining" a search rather than initiating a new one. The safest way to avoid getting zero hits erroneously is to simply follow the links provided at the bottom of each results page; either t start a new query or conduct another search using the particular option selected.
The total number of cases available in the database is still relatively small (just over 300); users may be disappointed by a consistent pattern of no results retrieved, particularly when searching by country of origin or Hathaway number. For this reason, the most effective option is "full text." Results are displayed in descending date order. The complete decisions, taken from LEXIS, are presented in .pdf format and their original language.
The database is designed for legal practitioners, refugee status decision makers, and policy makers. However, it will also prove a boon to law students drafting papers, briefs or advisory opinions, whether in asylum clinics or the classroom. Although currently limited in the variety of jurisdictions represented, this resource is a useful tool for undertaking comparative work. And with its sophisticated search mechanism in place, the refugee caselaw database will only improve as its holdings begin to multiply.
Independent Information Specialist