The Court of Justice of the European Union (the Court) interprets EU law to make sure it is applied in the same way in all EU countries. It also settles legal disputes between EU governments and EU institutions. Individuals, companies or organisations can also bring cases before the Court if they feel their rights have been infringed by an EU institution. The Court:
Reviews the legality of the acts of the institutions of the EU.
Ensures that Member States comply with obligations under EU treaties.
Interprets EU law at the request of national courts and tribunals.
The Court is the supreme judicial authority of the EU and, in conjunction with the courts and tribunals of the Member States, ensures the uniform application and interpretation of EU law.
The Court is based in Luxembourg and comprises three courts: the Court of Justice, the General Court and the Civil Service Tribunal. These courts have delivered around 15,000 judgments since their establishment.
2 Composition of the Court
The Court has 27 independent judges, one for each EU country, and is assisted by eight ‘advocates-general’ whose job it is to present opinions on cases brought before the Court. They must do so publicly and impartially.
Each judge and advocate-general is appointed for a term of six years, which can be renewed. The governments of EU countries agree on whom to appoint, following consultation with a panel responsible for advising on the suitability of prospective candidates who are chosen from among individuals whose independence is beyond doubt and who possess the qualifications required for appointment, in their respective countries, to the highest judicial office, or who are of recognised competence.
The judges elect one of their number as President for a renewable term of three years. The President directs the work of the Court and presides at hearings and deliberations of the full Court or the Grand Chamber.
The Registrar is the Court’s secretary general and manages the administrative functioning of the Court under the authority of the President.
The Court may sit as a full court, in a Grand Chamber of 13 Judges or in chambers of three or five judges.
The Court sits as a full court in the particular cases prescribed by the Statute of the Court (including proceedings to dismiss the European Ombudsman or a Member of the European Commission who has failed to fulfil his or her obligations) and where the Court considers that a case is of exceptional importance.
The Court sits in a Grand Chamber when a Member State or an institution which is a party to the proceedings requests and in particularly complex or important cases. Other cases are heard by chambers of three or five Judges. The President of a chambers of five Judges is elected for three years and that of a chamber of three judges for one year.
3 Types of Proceedings
3.1 Reference for a Preliminary Ruling
This is the procedure under which a preliminary reference is made by a national court on the interpretation of EU law to the Court. The national court will defer judgement pending the judgement of the Court which cooperates with all the national courts of the Member States, the ordinary courts in matters of EU law.1 The aim is to ensure the effective and uniform application of EU legislation and to prevent divergent interpretations. A national court may, and sometimes must, refer a matter to the Court and seek clarification on a question of the interpretation of EU law. A reference for a preliminary ruling may also seek the review of the validity of an act of EU law.
The Court's reply is not merely an opinion, it takes the form of a binding judgment. The national court, in deciding the dispute before it, is bound by the interpretation given in the Court’s judgement which also binds other national courts faced with the same problem.
A reference for a preliminary ruling is a means by which any citizen of the EU can seek clarification of EU rules. Although a reference can be made only by a national court, all parties to the proceedings before that court, the Member States and institutions of the EU may take part in the proceedings before the Court. In this way, several important principles of EU law have been laid down by preliminary rulings.
3.2 Action for Infringement or the Failure to Fulfil an Obligation
The Court is the only EU institution that can hold a Member State to account. The procedure for doing so is an action for infringement or failure to fulfil an obligation which enables the Court to determine whether a Member State has fulfilled its obligations under EU law.2 The Commission, in advance of bringing a case before the Court, must undertake a preliminary procedure in which the Member State concerned is afforded the opportunity to respond and remedy the failure. If the Member State does not do so, the Commission may bring an action for infringement of EU law before the Court.
The action is usually brought by the Commission, whilst an action may be brought by a Member State it is very rare for this to happen.3 If the Court finds that an obligation has not been fulfilled, the Member State must act without delay to end the failure. Where it does not, the Commission may bring a further action and, where the Court finds that the Member State has not complied with its judgment, the Court may impose a fixed or periodic financial penalty.
3.3 Actions for Annulment
An action for annulment involves the applicant seeking the annulment of a measure, in particular a regulation, directive or decision, adopted by an institution, body, office or agency of the EU.4 The Court has exclusive jurisdiction over actions brought by a Member State against the European Parliament and/or against the Council (with limited exceptions) or brought by one EU institution against another.
The General Court has jurisdiction, at first instance, in all other actions of this type, particularly in actions brought by individuals.
3.4 Actions for Failure to Act
An action for failure to act enables the lawfulness of the failure of the institutions, bodies, offices or agencies of the EU to act to be reviewed.5 An action may only be brought after the institution concerned has been called on to act. Where the failure to act is found to be unlawful, it is for the institution concerned to put an end to the failure by taking appropriate measures.
The jurisdiction over such actions is shared between the Court and the General Court in the same way as in the case for an action for annulment.
4 Appeals and Reviews
An appeal on a point of law only may be brought before the Court against judgments and orders of the General Court. If the appeal is allowed, the Court sets aside the judgment of the General Court. Where the state of the proceedings allows, the Court may itself decide the case, or otherwise refer the case back to the General Court which is bound by the decision of the Court on the appeal.
The General Court’s determination of an appeal against a decision of the Civil Service Tribunal may, in exceptional circumstances, be reviewed by the Court as provided in the Protocol on the Statute of the Court of Justice of the European Union.
2 Ibid. Article 258
3 There have been only three such cases.
4 Ibid. Article 263
5 Ibid. Article 265