What is the CJEU?
The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is the European Union’s (EU) judicial arm and is based in Luxembourg. Similar to national courts, its primary function is to resolve legal disputes between parties, which in the EU context typically involves Member State governments and EU institutions. One of its primary roles is to ensure that EU law is being observed correctly in all member states. It consists of two courts, the General Court and the Court of Justice.
History of CJEU: Establishment, Original Purpose
The origins of the CJEU can be traced back to the 1950s when the EU didn’t yet exist, but was preceded by three organisations: the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC). Three individual courts of justice were established to ensure each community followed the law faithfully. In 1957 under the Treaty of Rome, all three associations were amalgamated into the European Community and served by a single unified CJEU. In 1988, an additional court was created to meet the caseload. It was initially called the Court of First Instance, but later renamed the General Court in 2009.
Composition of the CJEU
The Court of Justice is made up of 27 Judges (one from each Member State) and 11 Advocates General. Appointees are chosen jointly by Member State governments for a six-year renewable term. Candidates must be independent and qualified to serve the highest judicial office of their respective country. The judges elect a President and Vice-President for a three-year term, which is renewable. Assisted by the Vice-President, the President presides over hearings and deliberations. The Advocates General are responsible for assisting the Court by presenting an impartial ‘opinion’ of their assigned cases. Cases can be heard by a full court, a Grand Chamber of 15 judges, or alternatively Chambers comprised of three or five judges.
The General Court is composed of two judges per Member State, appointed for a six-year renewable term. The candidates are chosen through joint decision-making by governments of the Member States. The judges nominate their own President for a three-year term and a Registrar for a six-year term.
Court sitting typically involves Chambers of five or three judges, or in certain cases is heard by only one judge. If the case is legally complex or important, the Court may still sit as a Grand Chamber of fifteen Judges.
Duties: What does the Court of Justice of the European Union do?
As the judicial branch of the EU, the CJEU is responsible for protecting the rights of EU citizens and ensuring that EU values are upheld through proper application of the law. But with the bloc’s population amounting to 448.4 million and counting, how can two courts with limited sitting judges handle protect the rights of so many citizens?
While EU decision-making happens in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg, the decisions are put into practise in national contexts - like a parent putting their child under 12 in a booster seat, or farmers abiding by health and safety standards to ensure our food is safe to eat. As many EU laws govern areas of our daily lives, national authorities are best placed to apply and enforce these laws.
As the highest legal authority, the role of the CJEU is to step in and act as a referee to resolve legal disputes should they arise. While most of these disputes concern EU institutions and Member States, in certain cases citizens and businesses can also initiate proceedings.
The CJEU is at the top legal order of the EU court system, whilst national courts are its footsoldiers responsible for enforcing EU law on the ground. However, with the 27 member states, there’s plenty of room for diverging interpretations. One of the CJEU’s primary obligations is to ensure EU law is applied uniformly, that rights bestowed on EU citizens through EU law are respected, and that any national laws which conflict with EU law are not applied (due to primacy of EU law over national law).
In this vein, national courts can, and in some cases must, refer to the CJEU to resolve any misunderstandings about the interpretation or validity of EU law, as well as to clarify whether a national law is compatible with EU law. Decisions handed down by the CJEU, known as preliminary rulings, are binding in all member states.
Actions for failure to act
The EU’s institutions have legal obligations to fulfil duties which are written in EU treaties. However, if an EU institution, body, agency or office fail to make a decision under a certain set of circumstances which as a result infringes their treaty obligations, this is called a failure to act.
EU governments, other EU institutions and under certain circumstances, individuals or companies can bring a case before the CJEU to complain about the failure to act. The CJEU decides if indeed the failure to act breaches the law. If it is deemed to be unlawful, the institution determines what measures they should take to end the failure to act. In this sense, it is the CJEU’s duty to ensure that EU institutions fulfil their legal duties and take appropriate action.
Actions for damages against the EU
If a person or a business has suffered damages which stem from a wrongdoing of the EU or its staff members, a case can be made before the CJEU to seek compensation for the damage done. In essence, it is like suing the EU!
Enforcing the law
EU laws are in place to strengthen democracy, protect EU citizens and ensure our rights are respected. So what happens if a member state violates EU law? In this scenario, the Commission or another member state can take a case (known as infringement proceedings) before the CJEU. If the court finds the member state is at fault, the member state must rectify the situation swiftly. If this doesn’t happen, a second case can be brought against the member state, which can result in a hefty fine.
Two years ago, the CJEU handed down a record-breaking fine to Poland amounting to 1 million per day. It followed a case taken by the Commission against Poland over a controversial law disciplining judges and Poland’s failure to comply with a court order to suspend the disciplinary mechanism.
Annulling EU law
The EU treaties and the Charter of Fundamental Rights form the backbone of EU law and in order to be valid, all EU acts must be compatible with their provisions. If an EU act breaches an EU treaty or fundamental right, it is possible to ask the CJEU to annul it.
Who can initiate this type of case? Member states, the Council of the EU, the Commission or (in certain circumstances) the European Parliament. One recent example is Poland’s and Hungary’s failed attempt to quash the rule of law mechanism by asking the Court to annul it. However, the CJEU dismissed the action of annulment.
It is also possible for citizens to bring annulment cases before the CJEU if they can show the EU act in question directly affects them.
How many stages are there in a CJEU case?
Cases brought before the CJEU begin with a written stage and, if appropriate, are followed by an oral stage.
In this first stage, both parties (aka the plaintiff and the defendant) submit written statements to the Court laying out their case. It is also possible for third parties, such as national authorities, EU institutions, and sometimes private individuals, to submit observations.
The written statements and observations are summarised and discussed at the Court’s general meeting, and a decision is made whether an oral hearing is necessary. In the Court of Justice, it is decided which constellation of judges (3, 5 or 15) will handle the case and whether it is necessary for the advocate general to submit an official opinion. In the General Court, typically the case is heard by 3 judges and there are no advocates general.
A public hearing is held in which lawyers representing each party present their case. If the ECJ has decided the advocate general’s opinion is necessary, this is issued some weeks later. Following this, the judges deliberate and hand down their judgement.