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Court of Justice of the European Union

The Court of Justice 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.

Composition

The Court of Justice has one judge per EU country.

The Court is helped by nine ‘advocates-general’ whose job is to present opinions on the 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 they want to appoint.

To help the Court of Justice cope with the large number of cases brought before it, and to offer citizens better legal protection, a ‘General Court’ deals with cases brought forward by private individuals, companies and some organisations, and cases relating to competition law.

The ‘EU Civil Service Tribunal’ rules on disputes between the European Union and its staff.

Types of cases

The Court gives rulings on the cases brought before it. The five most common types of cases are:

  1. requests for a preliminary ruling – when national courts ask the Court of Justice to interpret a point of EU law
  2. actions for failure to fulfil an obligation – brought against EU governments for not applying EU law
  3. actions for annulment – against EU laws thought to violate the EU treaties or fundamental rights
  4. actions for failure to act – against EU institutions for failing to make decisions required of them
  5. direct actions – brought by individuals, companies or organisations against EU decisions or actions

1. Preliminary ruling procedure

The national courts in each EU country are responsible for ensuring that EU law is properly applied in that country. But there is a risk that courts in different countries might interpret EU law in different ways.

To prevent this happening, there is a ‘preliminary ruling procedure’. If a national court is in 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 called a ‘preliminary ruling’.

2. Proceedings for failure to fulfil an obligation

The Commission can start these proceedings if it believes that a member country is failing to fulfil its obligations under EU law. These proceedings may also be started by another EU country.

In either case, the Court investigates the allegations and gives its judgment. If the country is found to be at fault, it must put things right at once. If the Court finds that the country has not followed its ruling, it can issue a fine.

3. Actions for annulment

If any EU country, the Council, the Commission or (under certain conditions) Parliament believes that a particular EU law is illegal, it may ask the Court to annul it.

‘Actions for annulment’ can also be used by private individuals who want the Court to cancel a particular law because it directly and adversely affects them as individuals.

If the Court finds the law in question was not correctly adopted or is not correctly based on the Treaties, it may declare the law null and void.

4. Actions for failure to act

The Treaty requires Parliament, the Council and the Commission to make certain decisions under certain circumstances. If they fail to do so, member countries, other Community institutions and (under certain conditions) individuals or companies can lodge a complaint with the Court so as to have this failure to act officially recorded.

5. Direct actions

Any person or company who has suffered damage as a result of the action or inaction of the Community or its staff can bring an action seeking compensation before the General Court.

How cases are heard

A judge and an advocate general are assigned to each case that comes before the Court.

Cases submitted to the court are processed in two stages: a written stage and an oral stage.

1. Written stage

First, all the parties involved hand in a written statement to the judge responsible for the case. The judge then writes a summary of these statements and the case's legal background.

2. Oral stage

The second stage is the public hearing. Depending on how complex the case is, this can take place before a panel of 3, 5 or 13 judges or in front of the whole Court. At the hearing, lawyers from both sides put their case to the judges and the advocate general, who can question them.

The advocate-general then gives his or her opinion. After this, the judges discuss the case together and give their judgement.

Advocates-general are only required to give their opinion on the case if the Court believes that the particular case raises a new point of law. The Court does not necessarily follow the advocate-general's opinion.

The Court's judgements are majority decisions and are read out at public hearings. Pictures of hearings are frequently televised (Europe by Satellite).

The procedure for hearings in the General Court is similar, except that no opinion is given by an advocate-general.