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Exhaustion is a legal term used to describe the requirement that an individual first seek a remedy in local courts or authorities before bringing collateral actions or actions based on international law in an international forum.

Exhaustion serves the important purpose of clarifying the record below by providing multiple levels of appeal, clarifying the issues in the case, and allowing courts to fix their own mistakes.

International Law

The requirement of exhaustion is fundamental to international law as international law is often regarded as a court of last resort. For instance, the International Criminal Court was founded to provide a venue of last resort for the prosecution of criminals when their own states failed to prosecute.

Under the theory of exhaustion a plaintiff bringing an action in international court must seek out domestic remedies if they are available. If the remedy is unavailable or the domestic court unreasonably delays granting a remeedy, the person may be able to file an international claim.

United States

Exhaustion is required for some civil rights actions in the United States that are based on 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as well as many cases brought in International Courts. For instance, before a prisoner may file an action for civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, they must first seek exhaustion of administrative remedies through the prison's grievance procedure[1]. In order to exhaust the remedies you must file a written complaint and you must take all steps required under prison procedures to claim exhaustion. Furthermore, one must raise all grievances as early as possible. Under U.S. law, exhaustion may not occur if one of the claims is left unresolved, even if it is not the claim under which the collateral action is brought.[2]

Courts have disagreed as to what exhaustion means and whether an individual's failure to exhaust their claims may be excused.


  1. The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a)
  2. Bey v. Pennsylvania Dept. of Corrections, 98 F. Supp. 2d 650 (E.D. Pa. 2000)