Seated in Luxembourg, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is the judicial arm of the EU. The CJEU now consists of three courts: the Court of Justice, the General Court (formerly the court of First Instance) and the Civil Service Tribunal. Its role is to ensure that EU law is observed in the interpretation and application of the treaties.
What the Court does
The Court ensures that EU legislation is interpreted and applied in the same way in each Member State. In other words, that it is always identical for all parties and in all circumstances. To this end, the Court checks the legality of the actions of the EU institutions, ensures the Member States comply with their obligations, and interprets EU law at the request of national courts.
The Court has the power to settle legal disputes between Member States, EU institutions, businesses and individuals. To cope with the many thousands of cases it receives, it is divided into two main bodies: the Court of Justice, which deals with requests for preliminary rulings from national courts, certain actions for annulment and appeals, and the General Court, which rules on all actions for annulment brought by private individuals and companies and some such actions brought by Member States.
A specialised tribunal, the Civil Service Tribunal, also adjudicates in disputes between the EU and its civil servants.
The Court gives rulings on cases brought before it. The four most common types of case are:
The preliminary ruling: The courts in each EU Member State are responsible for ensuring that EU law is properly applied in that country. If a national court is in any doubt about the interpretation or validity of an EU law it may, and sometimes must, ask the Court of Justice for advice. This advice is given in the form of a binding ‘preliminary ruling’. This ruling is an important channel for citizens, through their national courts, to establish how far EU laws affect them. There is no subjective right for citizens to have their case be brought before the CJEU through this procedure – however, if a national Court can be convinced to submit a request for a preliminary ruling to the Court, this can be a very effective way of promoting change on a specific legal issue.
Infringement Proceedings: The Commission, or (in some rare cases) a Member State, can initiate these proceedings if it has reason to believe that a certain Member State is failing to fulfil its obligations under EU law. The Court investigates the allegations and gives its judgment. If found to be at fault, the accused Member State must set things right without delay to avoid the fines the Court can apply. Infringement proceedings are an important tool for the European Commission to promote a given interpretation of EU Law.
Proceedings for annulment: If any of the Member States, the Council, the Commission or (under certain conditions) Parliament believes that a particular EU law is illegal, they may ask the Court to annul it. These ‘proceedings for annulment’ can also be used by private individuals who want the Court to annul a particular law because it directly and adversely affects them as individuals.
Proceedings for failure to act: The treaty requires the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission to make certain decisions under certain circumstances. If they fail to do so, the Member States, other EU institutions and (under certain conditions) individuals or companies can lodge a complaint with the Court so as to have this violation officially recorded.
How the Court works
The Court of Justice is composed of 28 Judges, one from each Member State, so that all the EU national legal systems are represented. The Court is assisted by eight ‘Advocates General’ who present reasoned opinions on the cases brought before the Court. They must do so publicly and impartially. The Judges and Advocates General are either former members of the highest national courts or highly competent lawyers who can be relied on to show impartiality. They are appointed by joint agreement of the Member State governments. Each is appointed for a term of six years.
The Judges of the Court select a President who serves for three years. The Court of Justice can sit as a full Court, a Grand Chamber of 13 Judges or Chambers of five or three Judges, depending on the complexity and importance of the case. Nearly 60 % of cases are heard by Chambers of five Judges and around 25 % by Chambers of three Judges.
The General Court is also composed of 28 Judges, appointed by the Member States for six-year terms. The Judges of the General Court also elect a President among themselves for a three-year term. This Court sits in Chambers of three or five Judges (sometimes a single Judge) to hold hearings. Around 80 % of General Court cases are heard by three Judges. A Grand Chamber of 13 Judges, or a full Chamber of 28, may meet if the complexity or importance of the case justifies this.
All cases are submitted to the Registry at the Court and a specific Judge and Advocate General are assigned. After submission, there are two steps: first, a written stage and then an oral stage. In the first stage, all the parties involved submit written statements and the Judge assigned to the case draws up a report summarising these statements and the legal background to the case. This report is discussed at the Court’s General Meeting which decides the judicial formation that will hear the case and whether oral arguments are necessary. Then comes the second stage — the public hearing — where the lawyers put their case before the Judges and the Advocate General, who can question them. After the oral hearing, the Advocate General assigned to the case draws up his or her opinion. In the light of this opinion, the Judge draws up a draft ruling which is submitted to the other Judges for examination. The Judges then deliberate and deliver their judgment. Judgments of the Court are decided by a majority and pronounced at a public hearing. In most instances the text is available in all official languages of the EU on the same day. Dissenting opinions are not expressed.
Not all cases follow this standard procedure. When the urgency of a case so dictates, simplified and expedited procedures exist which allow the Court to rule within approximately three months.