Weighty Decisions in the WTO

By | June 27, 2014

One of the growing concerns in trade law is the long, dense and over-wordy WTO panel and Appellate Body decisions. These decisions run in the hundreds and hundreds of pages in densely-typed and often opaque paragraphs, vexing lawyers (let alone non-lawyers) in trying to grasp the meaning and long-term impact of these judgements.

It’s puzzling why WTO decisions can’t be more straightforward and succinct. Some of us despair that someday the dispute settlement process will collapse under its own weight.

The WTO’s place as a respected global institution depends on respect for the dispute settlement process. If stakeholders, and even legal experts, have difficulty penetrating panel and appeal decisions, it could affect respect for the process over time.

Here’s an interesting comparison. The Supreme Court of Canada’s important judgement issued 26 June 2014 on aboriginal title in the Tsilhqot’in First Nation case, which is a judicial milestone for Canada, runs an economical 72 pages of double-spaced typing (or 858 KB in PDF format).

Compare this with the WTO Appellate Body decision in the Canada-EU seal import ban case earlier this year, a decision of much, much less significance in the scheme of things, but which runs to almost 200 pages of dense, single-spaced type, hundreds of paragraphs and almost four times the number of words (1,322 KB in PDF format). And this is short in comparison to other WTO decisions.

This isn’t a perfect apples-to-apples comparison. But it does illustrate the need for more attention in Geneva to better, clearer and more compact decision writing.