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European and international courts

There are many courts that operate at international level, and it is not always easy to distinguish their jurisdiction. The aim of this summary is to present the European courts and to distinguish between those which are part of the European Union and those which belong to other international organisations.

COURTS OF THE EUROPEAN UNION

The Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) refers to the whole judicial system of the EU. It is composed of three courts:

  • the Court of Justice;
  • the General Court;
  • the Specialised Courts.

Court of Justice

The Court of Justice has jurisdiction in actions brought by Member States or European institutions. It may also have jurisdiction of last resort in judgments delivered by the General Court. In this case, it rules on the questions of law only and not on the facts of the case.

General Court

The General Court is attached to the Court of Justice and is designed to reduce that Court's workload.

The General Court has jurisdiction to hear at first instance actions brought by Member States or individuals in the cases provided for by the European Treaties.

Specialised Courts

The Specialised Courts were created by the European Parliament and the Council in accordance with the ordinary legislative procedure. These courts have jurisdiction at first instance in certain categories of action on specific matters.

Different types of action

The CJEU is responsible for ensuring compliance with European law. It has jurisdiction in actions brought by Member States, other European institutions and European citizens. There are several types of procedure:

INTERNATIONAL COURTS

There is a wide range of courts and tribunals that hear disputes at international level and which have their headquarters on European territory. However, these courts do not come under the auspices of the European Union. They are:

  • the courts of other European organisations, in particular the European Court of Human Rights and the EFTA Court (European Free Trade Association);
  • the courts created under the auspices of the United Nations;
  • the independent dispute settlement bodies of the United Nations.

Courts of other European organisations

Neither the European Court of Human Rights nor the EFTA Court is a European Union institution.

The European Court of Human Rights is an international court set up under the Council of Europe, which currently has 47 Member States. The Court enforces the European Convention on Human Rights, signed on 4 November 1950.

The EFTA Court enforces the Agreement on the European Economic Area (EEA). The Agreement secures freedom of movement of persons, goods, services, etc.

Courts created under the auspices of the United Nations

The Member States of the United Nations have established three Permanent Courts of Justice - the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

The International Court of Justice(ICJ). The ICJ was founded by the Charter of the United Nations, signed on 26 June 1945. It is the main judicial body in the United Nations family and has jurisdiction in, among other matters, questions relating to the Charter of the United Nations, the interpretation of international treaties, questions of international law, violations of international law and the nature and extent of compensation in the event of a violation of an obligation under international law. Only States can be parties in cases in the Court. The ICJ sits at The Hague, in the Netherlands.

The International Criminal Court(ICC) has the power to try persons who have committed serious crimes of international concern. These crimes include genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. The ICC sits at The Hague, in the Netherlands.

The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea is an independent court set up by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (FR). It has jurisdiction in disputes concerning the interpretation and application of the Convention. The States party to the Convention and natural and legal persons have access to the Tribunal, which sits at Hamburg, in Germany.

Furthermore, the United Nations has created two other non-permanent courts in order to try war crimes and certain genocides:

United Nations independent dispute-settlement bodies

Apart from the international courts and tribunals, there are several other dispute-settlement bodies, in particular the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Dispute Settlement Body.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) is an independent intergovernmental organisation. It administers arbitration and conciliation procedures and committees of inquiry in disputes between Member States, private parties and intergovernmental organisations on the basis of international arbitration regulations. The PCA sits at The Hague, in the Netherlands.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) Dispute Settlement Body settles disputes in world trade. WTO dispute settlement is governed by the memorandum of agreement signed at Marrakech in 1994 following the Uruguay Round negotiations. The memorandum puts the emphasis on consultation and sets strict deadlines for settling disputes. The WTO is based at Geneva, in Switzerland.

This summary is for information only. It is not intended to interpret or replace the reference document, which remains the only binding legal text.

Last updated: 25.02.2011
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