European Court of Justice

Summary: The Court of Justice is the highest court in the European Union in matters of EU law. Its job is to interpret EU law and ensure its equal application across all member states. It was established in 1952 and is based in Luxembourg. The president is Vassilios Skouris who was first elected in 2003.

The Court of Justice of the European Union consists of three courts, the Court of Justice, the General Court, and the Civil Service Tribunal.

Its mission is to review the legality of the acts of the institutions, ensure that member states comply with the obligations under the Treaties and interpret EU law at the request of the national courts and tribunals.

The Court of Justice

The Court has 27 judges who are appointed by the member states for renewable terms of six years.  They are legal experts whose independence is beyond doubt and who are qualified for the highest judicial offices in their respective countries. The President is elected from and by fellow judges for a renewable term of three years.  In 2009 it had a budget of 238 million euros. In 2008 the Court dealt with 1300 cases.

In addition to the judges, the Court has 11 Advocates-General who present legal opinion on cases. They are nominated, one by each of the large member states (Germany, France, UK, Italy, Spain and Poland), five by rotation by the smaller member states. Advocates-General can question the parties involved and give their opinion or suggest a solution before judges deliberate. Their role is advisory and their opinions are not legally binding but are influential and followed in a majority of cases. They are only asked for an opinion if the case considered by the Court raises a new point of law.

The Court of Justice hears cases in chambers of three, five or, for particularly important cases, as a Grand Chamber of 13 judges. The rules of procedure include a written phase and an oral phase.  The written procedure takes the form of a report including the pleadings from the parties and applicable law prepared by the Judge-Rapporteur who is appointed by the President of the Chamber. The case is then heard orally in open court. The judges then deliberate on the basis of a draft prepared by the Judge-Rapporteur. Their ruling is given in open court.

The language of the proceedings is at the choice of the applicant. The working language of the Court including reports and judgments is French. Advocates-General work in any of the official languages because they don’t take part in deliberations.

The General Court

The General Court was founded in 1988 and was formerly known as the Court of the First Instance. Like the Court of Justice it has 27 judges from each of the member states appointed for six year terms renewable, but it has no Advocates-General. It meets in chambers of five, three and even one judge. Eighty per cent of cases are heard by a chamber of three. Its rulings may be appealed to the Court of Justice within two months of its verdict. 

Typically the General Court deals with trademarks in cases where they have been refused by the EU Trade Mark and Design registry, competition rules and mergers. A recent example of the cases it handles is the annulment of a decision of the European Commission in relation to the proposed takeover by a Airtours of a competitor. The reason for the annulment is because in the Court’s view the Commission had not shown enough evidence of the potential negative effects on competition.

In differentiation from the Court of Justice that has exclusive jurisdiction over actions brought by a member state against the European Parliament and/or against the Council or brought by one European institution against another, the General Court has jurisdiction at first instance, particularly in actions brought by individuals.

The Civil Service Tribunal

The Civil Service Tribunal was created in 2004, consists of seven judges and deals at first instance with disputes involving the European Civil Service. Its rulings may be appealed to the General Court and exceptionally to the Court of Justice.

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Note. The European Court of Justice is not to be confused with the European Court of Human Rights which is the court of the Council of Europe.