The Court has a twofold role: to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted to it by States (contentious cases) and to give advisory opinions (advisory procedures) on legal questions referred to it by duly authorized United Nations organs and specialized agencies.

In contentious proceedings, when a dispute is brought before the Court by a unilateral application filed by one State against another State, the names of the parties in the official title of the case are separated by the abbreviation v. for the Latin versus (e.g., Cameroon v. Nigeria). When a dispute is submitted to the Court on the basis of a special agreement between two States, the names of the parties are separated by an oblique stroke (e.g., Indonesia/Malaysia).

The first case entered in the General List of the Court (Corfu Channel (United Kingdom v. Albania)) was submitted on 22 May 1947.

Between 22 May 1947 and 29 April 2024, 195 cases were entered in the General List.