As part of our online event, Unlock Oxford Law, we asked some of our expert authors to identify the most important case in their area of law over the past year. From child slavery to data privacy, we’ve highlighted some of the most groundbreaking and noteworthy cases below.
“Our choice in terms of the most interesting legal reasoning is Doe v. Nestle USA, Inc., a child slavery case involving cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast. The issue to be decided was whether leading chocolate brands had violated the law of nations by profiting from child labour even if they were not the legal owners of the cocoa farms (and did not control local conditions of labour directly). The court refers to the economic leverage exercised by such brands in the world commodity market, from which it may draw legal inferences. Remarkably, neither territory, nor sovereignty, nor the requirements of foreign policy are part of the legal reasoning used by the court, although they been the focus of private international law’s more familiar approach to the governance of corporate conduct abroad. On the other hand, what the Court is clearly attempting to do is bring the pressure of the legal system down on a point in a global production chain. The leverage of private actors within the market through their brands is acknowledged, as are their power of regulatory capture through lobbying and the triumph of self-regulation. The legal response can be understood in terms of social responsibility, jurisdictional touchdown, victim access to justice, and a political horizon in which the pursuit of profit or market efficiency is balanced against other values.”
— Horatia Muir Watt is Professor at Sciences-Po Paris, where she is Co-Director of the programme ‘Global Governance Studies’ within the Master’s Degree in Economic Law. Diego P. Fernández Arroyo has been professor at the School of Law of Sciences Po in Paris since 2010 and a Global Professor of New York University since 2013. They are the co-editors of Private International Law and Global Governance.
The legal response can be understood in terms of social responsibility, jurisdictional touchdown, victim access to justice and a political horizon in which the pursuit of profit or market efficiency is balanced against other values.
“There is a pending case at the World Trade Organization that has attracted much attention. It opposes a number of tobacco-producing or exporting countries (and the companies that work in this area) and the government of Australia, which has greatly limited the use of trademarks on tobacco packaging. A panel report is expected later this year and I would not be surprised if the case made it to the Appellate Body towards the end of 2015. Like many of the areas of IP, finding a proper balance between IP protection and other important objectives such as public health is often controversial. Many of the debates have been highly emotional in nature. The approach that the panel and possibly the Appellate Body will take is likely to inform the way in which public health and IP will intersect well beyond the issue of tobacco packaging.
— Daniel Gervais is Professor of Law, Co-Director of the Intellectual Property Program, Vanderbilt University Law School, and editor of Intellectual Property, Trade and Development.
“The most significant court decision of recent years in the field of data privacy law is the CJEU decision of May 2014 ordering Google to suppress certain Internet search results for privacy-related reasons: Case C-131/12, Google Spain v. Agencia Española de Protección de Datos (AEPD) and Mario Costeja González. Popularly—but misleadingly—characterized as establishing a ‘right to be forgotten,’ the decision has been heavily debated across the world. The lines of debate concern the extent to which information about a person’s past life ought to be made easily accessible online, even when the information has diminished relevance for assessing the person’s present life and would be difficult to find offline. Less salient but also important is to what degree online search and retrieval tools should emulate the standards of the (past) offline world, particularly in an era when it is technologically difficult to ‘let bygones be bygones.’
Popularly but misleadingly characterized as establishing a ‘right to be forgotten’, the decision has been heavily debated across the world.
“The decision has obvious ramifications for Internet governance. While the case is not the first time that the CJEU has fired across the path of Internet technology deployment, it is the first time that the Court has fired directly at, and forced changes to, a commonly used Internet mechanism. It is also the first time that the Court has fired, albeit more indirectly, at a basic and highly profitable element of the ‘Internet economy.’ Moreover, the decision has considerable potential to exacerbate ‘Balkanization’ of the Internet by accentuating regional differences in what information can be easily accessed online.”
— Lee Bygrave is Professor in the Norwegian Research Centre for Computers and Law at the University of Oslo. He is the author of Internet Governance by Contract and Data Privacy Law: An International Perspective.
“One of the most important recent decisions of the Court of Appeal on sentencing is Burinskas  EWCA Crim 334, where the Lord Chief Justice provided detailed practical advice for judges on how to sentence the most serious cases involving ‘dangerous offenders’ following abolition of the notorious sentence of ‘imprisonment for public protection’. The judge must consider, in turn, the provisions and the case law relating to the sentences of ‘discretionary life’, ‘life for the second listed offence’, and the revised ‘extended sentence’. If there is evidence that the defendant is affected by mental disorder then, according to the recent decision in Vowles  EWCA Crim 45, the judge is required to consider a ‘hospital and limitation direction’ and a ‘hospital order with a restriction order’ before imposing a prison sentence. Detailed reasons must always be given at each stage of the decision-making process.”
— Martin Wasik CBE is Professor of Law at Keele University. He was formerly chairman of the Sentencing Advisory Panel (1997-2007) and author of A Practical Approaching to Sentencing.
“The greatest international investment arbitration case of 2014 was the trio of awards on merits in Yukos v. Russia. It is without doubt the greatest victory for an investor ever: claimants were awarded more than USD 50 billion. However this is not without precedent. The United Nations Compensation Commission has approved awards of more than USD 52 billion and some number crunching could put the contemporary value of the 1872 Alabama award at £150 billion. But Yukos certainly surpasses most recent benchmarks in the amount of compensation, whether for inter-State Tribunals (USD 1/2 billion in the Iran-US Claims Tribunal) or mixed dispute settlement (EUR 1.9 billion in another Yukos case in the ECtHR and USD 1.8 billion plus interest in the ICSID case of Occidental v. Ecuador).
…the decision to create judicial bodies that can award important remedies for breaches of particular rules must be reflective, at least to some extent, of the importance that the particular community attributes to the particular rules.
“To look solely at compensation would be an unduly simplistic way of assessing the effectiveness of international Tribunals. Cessation of wrongful conduct and non-repetition may be of greater long-term significance in ensuring compliance with international law; these issues are not central in investment arbitration. Still, the decision to create judicial bodies that can award important remedies for breaches of particular rules must be reflective, at least to some extent, of the importance that the particular community attributes to the particular rules. Yukos, then, shows just how important international investment law is for the contemporary international community.
“(Yukos is also, without doubt, the greatest victory for the respondent State ever: the application of the principle of contribution to injury reduced the amount of compensation by 25% to the effect of USD 17 billion. The importance and implications of this aspect of the award are a matter for another discussion.)”
— Martins Paparinskis is a Lecturer at University College London. He has previously been a Junior Research Fellow at Merton College, University of Oxford, and a postdoctoral fellow at the New York University. He is the author of The International Minimum Standard and Fair and Equitable Treatment.
“For criminal lawyers, case law is low on their list of priorities. They must first understand new criminal law statutes. The difficulties are increased by a variety of commencement dates. As the effect of a statute cannot—in relation to offences or sentence—be backdated, it is essential that this information is identified. Together with new statutes come a series of codes of practice and circulars dealing with the many issues from the police station through the Court of Appeal. New codes of practice under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act have made significant changes in the requirements on disclosure and circulars have dealt with new out of court procedures to divert suspects from the criminal courts.
“But it is case law that has reviewed the law of confiscation. In R v. Ahmed and R v. Fields 2014 UKSC 36, the Supreme Court has assisted in identifying the value of the benefit that has been received by a defendant convicted of crime. The court looks at the individual benefit before assuming that everyone has benefited to the full extent. The court did not take the opportunity to limit the benefit to the actual sums retained by a particular defendant. However, in relation to the assets available to pay a confiscation order, the court has ensured that the State may not benefit more than once from the amount confiscated.”
— Anthony Edwards is Senior Partner of TV Edwards, a duty solicitor, a supervisor for the specialist fraud panel, and a higher courts advocate. He is author of Magistrates’ Court Handbook.
Image Credit: “Keys, USS Bowfin” by Joseph Novak. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.