European Court of Justice

Saturday, 1 October 2016 - 12:00 pm (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: European Union, General, House of the Month

European Court of Justice © flickr.com - sprklg/cc-by-sa-2.0

European Court of Justice © flickr.com – sprklg/cc-by-sa-2.0

The European Court of Justice (ECJ), officially just the Court of Justice (French: Cour de Justice), is the highest court in the European Union in matters of European Union law. As a part of the Court of Justice of the European Union it is tasked with interpreting EU law and ensuring its equal application across all EU member states. The Court was established in 1952 and is based in Luxembourg. It is composed of one judge per member state – currently 28 – although it normally hears cases in panels of three, five or 15 judges. The court has been led by president Koen Lenaerts since 2015. All the EU’s judicial bodies are based in Luxembourg, separate from the political institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg. The Court of Justice is based in the Palais building, currently under expansion, in the Kirchberg district of Luxembourg. Luxembourg was chosen as the provisional seat of the Court on 23 July 1952 with the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community. Its first hearing there was held on 28 November 1954 in a building known as Villa Vauban, the seat until 1959 when it would move to the Côte d’Eich building and then to the Palais building in 1972. In 1965, the member states established Luxembourg as the permanent seat of the Court. Future judicial bodies (Court of First Instance and Civil Service Tribunal) would also be based in the city. The decision was confirmed by the European Council at Edinburgh in 1992. However, there was no reference to future bodies being in Luxembourg. In reaction to this, the Luxembourgian government issued its own declaration stating it did not surrender those provisions agreed upon in 1965. The Edinburgh decision was attached to the Amsterdam Treaty. With the Treaty of Nice Luxembourg attached a declaration stating it did not claim the seat of the Boards of Appeal of the Office for Harmonisation in the Internal Market – even if it were to become a judicial body. It is the responsibility of the Court of Justice to ensure that the law is observed in the interpretation and application of the Treaties of the European Union and of the provisions laid down by the competent Community institutions To enable it to carry out that task, the Court has broad jurisdiction to hear various types of action. The Court has competence, among other things, to rule on applications for annulment or actions for failure to act brought by a Member State or an institution, actions against Member States for failure to fulfil obligations, references for a preliminary ruling and appeals against decisions of the General Court.

The court was established in 1952, by the Treaty of Paris (1951) as part of the European Coal and Steel Community. It was established with seven judges, allowing both representation of each of the six member States and being an unequal number of judges in case of a tie. One judge was appointed from each member state and the seventh seat rotated between the “large Member States” (Germany, France and Italy). It became an institution of two additional Communities in 1957 when the European Economic Community (EEC), and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) were created, sharing the same courts with the European Coal and Steel Community. The Maastricht Treaty was ratified in 1993, and created the European Union. The name of the Court did not change unlike the other institutions. The power of the Court resided in the Community pillar (the first pillar). The Court gained power in 1997 with the signing of the Amsterdam Treaty. Issues from the third pillar were transferred to the first pillar. Previously, these issues were settled between the member states. Following the entrance into force of the Treaty of Lisbon on 1 December 2009, the ECJ’s official name was changed from the “Court of Justice of the European Communities” to the “Court of Justice” although in English it is still most common to refer to the Court as the European Court of Justice. The Court of First Instance was renamed as the “General Court”, and the term “Court of Justice of the European Union” will officially designate the two courts, as along with its specialised tribunals, taken together.

European Court of Justice © flickr.com - sprklg/cc-by-sa-2.0 European Court of Justice © Zairon/cc-by-sa-3.0 European Court of Justice © flickr.com - Cédric Puisney/cc-by-2.0 © curia.europa.eu
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European Court of Justice © flickr.com - Cédric Puisney/cc-by-2.0
The ECJ is the highest court of the European Union in matters of Union law, but not national law. It is not possible to appeal the decisions of national courts to the ECJ, but rather national courts refer questions of EU law to the ECJ. However, it is ultimately for the national court to apply the resulting interpretation to the facts of any given case. Although, only courts of final appeal are bound to refer a question of EU law when one is addressed. The treaties give the ECJ the power for consistent application of EU law across the EU as a whole. The court also acts as arbiter between the EU’s institutions and can annul the latter’s legal rights if it acts outside its powers. The judicial body is now undergoing strong growth, as witnessed by its continually rising caseload and budget. The Luxembourg courts received more than 1,300 cases when the most recent data was recorded in 2008, a record. The staff budget also hit a new high of almost €238 million in 2009, while in 2014 €350 million were budgeted.

Over time ECJ developed two essential rules on which the legal order rests: direct effect and supremacy. The court first ruled on the direct effect of primary legislation in a case that, though technical and tedious, raised a fundamental principle of Union law. In Van Gend en Loos (1963), a Dutch transport firm brought a complaint against Dutch customs for increasing the duty on a product imported from Germany. The court ruled that the Community constitutes a new legal order, the subjects of which consist of not only the Member States but also their nationals. The principle of direct effect would have had little impact if Union law did not supersede national law. Without supremacy the Member States could simply ignore EU rules. In Costa v ENEL (1964), the court ruled that member states had definitively transferred sovereign rights to the Community and Union law could not be overridden by domestic law. Another early landmark case was Commission v Luxembourg & Belgium (1964), the “Dairy Products” case. In that decision the Court comprehensively ruled out any use by the Member States of the retaliatory measures commonly permitted by general international law within the European Economic Community. That decision is often thought to be the best example of the European legal order’s divergence with ordinary international law. Commission v Luxembourg & Belgium also has a logical connection with the nearly contemporaneous Van Gend en Loos and Costa v ENEL decisions, as arguably it is the doctrines of direct effect and supremacy that allow the European legal system to forego any use of retaliatory enforcement mechanisms by the Member States. Further, in the 1991 Francovich case, the ECJ established that Member States could be liable to pay compensation to individuals who suffered a loss by reason of the Member State’s failure to transpose an EU directive into national law C-6/90.

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