The End of Law's Ambition: Human Rights Courts, Democratisation and Social Justice

iCourts Working Paper Series No. 67

1 Pages Posted: 2 Jun 2016 Last revised: 23 Sep 2016

See all articles by Tom Daly

Tom Daly

Melbourne School of Government

Date Written: May 31, 2016


In recent years, regional human rights courts have been increasingly viewed, and sought to act, not only as dispensers of individual justice but also as engines of wholesale societal transformation in young democracies. Yet, while various scholars appear to present these courts as key actors in successful democratisation processes and the pursuit of social justice, the true reality appears less positive. In particular, a recent article by Alexandra Huneeus raises serious concerns regarding the legitimacy and effectiveness of regional human rights courts’ ambitious attempts to effect ‘structural reform’ at the State level. This paper builds on Huneeus’ critique by interrogating the claims made for regional human rights courts as agents of democratisation and social justice, and by locating these claims and her critique within a wider conceptual, historical, institutional and comparative context. In doing so, the paper argues that the expansion of these courts’ ambitions forms just part of a century-long constitutional story that has pushed law’s transformational ambitions to its limits, and that this increase in ambition appears to raise acute dangers for regional human rights courts when viewed against wider trends.

Keywords: Human rights courts, social justice, democratisation, transformation, structural reform

Suggested Citation

Daly, Tom, The End of Law's Ambition: Human Rights Courts, Democratisation and Social Justice (May 31, 2016). iCourts Working Paper Series No. 67, Available at SSRN: or

Tom Daly (Contact Author)

Melbourne School of Government ( email )

Melbourne Law School
185 Pelham Street
Melbourne, VIC 3053

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