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European Court of Justice

The Court of Justice of the European Communities (often referred to simply as ‘the Court’) was set up under the ECSC Treaty in 1952. It is based in Luxembourg. Article 19 TEU provides that the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is ‘(…) to ensure that in the interpretation and application of the Treaties the law is observed.’ It makes sure that EU legislation is interpreted and applied in the same way in all EU countries, so that the law is equal for everyone. It ensures, for example, that national courts do not give different rulings on the same issue. The Court also ensures that EU Member States and institutions do what the law requires. The Court has the power to settle legal disputes between EU Member States, EU institutions, businesses and individuals.

The Court is composed of one judge per Member State, so that all 27 of the EU’s national legal systems are represented. The Court is assisted by eight ‘advocates-general’ whose role is to present reasoned opinions on the cases brought before the Court. They must do so publicly and impartially. The Court may meet in plenary session, or create chambers of three or five judges. Only a single judgement is delivered in each case, signed by all judges, without any dissenting opinions. Hence, all decisions are both unanimous and anonymous, preventing any attempt to attribute the result to the nationality of the judges deciding the case.

Most matters brought before the Court are either references from national courts for preliminary rulings or direct actions. Preliminary rulings by the Court result from requests by Member States’ national courts for the ECJ ‘to give preliminary rulings concerning’ either (a) ‘the interpretation of [the] Treaty’; or ‘(b) the validity and interpretation of acts of the institutions of the Community’ (Article 267 TFEU). In other words, the ECJ’s role is to provide uniform and authoritative interpretations of primary and secondary Community law. Direct actions are those usually brought by the Commission against various Member States that have failed to fulfil their obligations under Community law (Article 258 TFEU), or by individuals seeking to challenge the validity of EU legislation that affects them (Article 263TFEU).

To help the Court of Justice cope with the large number of cases brought before it, and to offer citizens better legal protection, a ‘Court of First Instance’ was created in 1989. This Court (which is attached to the Court of Justice) is responsible for giving rulings on certain kinds of case, particularly actions brought by private individuals, companies and some organisations, and cases relating to competition law. In a Protocol annexed to the Treaty of Nice, the Statute of the ECJ and the CFI was revised, and a number of reforms were introduced. These included a redistribution of responsibilities between the ECJ and the CFI whereby the CFI becomes the ordinary court for all direct actions.

A new judicial body, the ‘European Civil Service Tribunal’, has been set up to adjudicate in disputes between the European Union and its civil service. This tribunal is composed of seven judges and is attached to the Court of First Instance.

One of the major changes in the judicial structure of the European courts envisaged by the Treaty of Nice is the creation of specialised judicial panels to hear cases in specific areas. Along these lines, the Treaty of Nice enabled the Court to be granted jurisdiction in disputes relating to Community industrial property rights (Article 262 TFEU). Allowing for the creation of specialised tribunals means it is now possible, following a practice in the Member States, that a specialised EU tribunal could be created to deal with disputes in the field of employment and industrial relations. It may be that a specialised Labour Panel would be appropriate for cases raising issues of EU law in the fields of employment and industrial relations. One such specialised tribunal has been created to deal with cases involving staff employed by the EU institutions.

The ECJ is acknowledged to have been the driving force in the emergence of a distinctive ‘European Union law’, separate from both national laws and traditional international law. The Court notably proclaimed this to be ‘a new legal order’ in NV Algemene Transporten Expeditie Onderneming van Gend en Loos v. Nederlandse Administratie der Belastingen, Case 26/62 [1963]. Moreover, this new legal order was accorded supremacy over the national laws of the Member States (Costa v. ENEL, Case 6/64 [1964]). In Partie Ecologiste ‘Les Verts’ v. Parliament, Case 294/83 [1986], the Court affirmed that the European Community is ‘a community based on the rule of law’ and, in particular, the Treaty had to be recognised as its ‘basic constitutional charter.’

See also: access to the judicial process; complaints to the European Court of Justice; Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union; euro-litigation; judicial cooperation in the EU; judicial enforcement of EU law; justiciability of EU law; preliminary reference procedure; supremacy of EU law.

Please note: the European industrial relations dictionary is updated annually. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them.
Page last updated: 21 September, 2011