European Court of Justice

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is the supreme judicial authority on EU law. It includes: the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the General Court and specialised courts.


The Court of Justice (better-known as European Court of Justice or ECJ) is composed of 27 Judges, one per Member State, and of 8 Advocates-General, 5 from the big Members States (United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain and Italy) whilst 3 positions rotate in alphabetical order between the other countries composing the European Union.

The Judges and Advocates-General are chosen by common accord of the national governments “from persons whose independence is beyond doubt and who possess the qualifications required for appointment to the highest judicial offices in their respective countries or who are jurisconsults of recognised competence” (art. 253.1 TFEU) for a renewable term of six years.

Form of court cases and judgements

All cases dealt by the Court are made up of two phases: first a written and then an oral stage. In particular, the latter is characterized by a public hearing that takes place before a panel of three, five, thirteen or twenty-seven Judges (the number depends on the importance/complexity of the case and on the provisions of the Treaties).During this second phase, the parties put their case before the Court and they can be questioned by the Advocate-General.

At the end of the public hearing, if a new point of law is raised by the case, the Advocate-General gives his or her legal and independent opinion, after which the Court of Justice decides by a majority and delivers the judgement. Unlike other supreme judicial authorities (e.g. the Supreme Court of the United States), dissenting opinions are not expressed.

Role of the court

The main role of the ECJ is to ensure that the European law is interpreted and applied equally in the Member States and that the European businesses, institutions, countries and individuals respect the EU law. For this reason, in disputes related to the EU law, the Court's decisions have binding effects towards all these actors (also the national judges) in order to avoid differentiated interpretations or applications of the European law.

Because of the heavy workload of the Court of Justice, in 1989 the Court of First Instance (today, General Court) was created in order to give ruling on certain kinds of case (especially trademarks and EU competition law). It is composed of 27 Judges, one per Member State, but there are not permanent Advocates-General. With the limitation of questions of law, it is possible to file an appeal before the Court of justice against the rulings of the General Court.

Types of cases

According to the Treaties, the ECJ gives rulings on 5 different kinds of cases:

Actions for failure to fulfil obligations

If a Member State fails to fulfil an obligation imposed by the EU law, the European Commission or a Member State may bring the matter before the ECJ (if the informal conciliation with the EC does not have a good outcome). In case the ECJ, after the proceeding, considers that an obligation has not been fulfilled, it can order to the Member State to adopt the necessary measures. If the Member State does not comply with the judgement, the EC files a case before the Court which could condemn the Member State to pay a lump sum or a penalty.

Actions for annulment

In this case the applicant seeks the annulment of a legislative act (regulation, directive or decision) adopted by the institutions or of acts of bodies, offices or agencies of the Union intended to produce legal effects vis-à-vis third parties. These acts can be annulled for 4 main violations: a) lack of competence; b) infringement of an essential procedural requirement; c) infringement of the Treaty or any rule of law relating to its application; d) misuse of powers. In relation to the nature of the applicants, the Treaties distinguish 3 kinds of plaintiffs.

First, the Council, the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Member States are considered “preferential plaintiffs” because they do not have to demonstrate any interest in taking action.

Second, the European Central Bank, the Court of Auditors and the committee of Regions can file case before the Court in order to protect their prerogatives.

Finally, natural or legal persons can “institute proceedings against an act addressed to that person or which is of direct and individual concern to them, and against a regulatory act which is of direct concern to them and does not entail implementing measures” (art. 263 TFEU). If the Court rules in favour of the annulment of the act, it is considered void and the judgement has ultra partes (beyond the parties) effects. With the exception of some cases, the annulment has retrospective effects: all its legal effects disappear and it is considered as never existed.

Actions for failure to act

European institutions and Member States can bring an action before the ECJ if they believe that an infringement of EU law has occurred because of the failure to act of an institution, body, office or agency. Also natural and legal persons could be plaintiffs but they have to prove that the failure to act concerns them directly and individually. If the failure to act is proven to exist, the institution, body, office or agency concerned must adopt the necessary measures to comply with the Court's judgement.

Actions for damages based on non-contractual liability

Any natural or legal person that has suffered a damage, caused by the activity of an European institution or by a Member State in applying an EU law, may claim compensation before the ECJ. In order to receive the compensation, the applicant must demonstrate a direct link between the damage suffered and the action or inaction of the institution and that the institution concerned was at fault.

Reference for a preliminary ruling

National courts are entitled to question the Court of Justice on the interpretation or validity of European law. The parties involved in the dispute can ask the judge to may request a referral, the decision to do so rest with the national judge. Only in presence of a national court of last resort, there is an obligation to exercise the reference for a preliminary ruling if one of the parties requests it. In case of interpretation, the national judge requires a clarification on EU law in order to apply it correctly. In case of validity, the ECJ is requested to check the validity of the EU law. The ECJ's decision will have ultra partes effects and in the case of validity, if the European instrument is declared invalid, all of the instruments adopted based on it are also invalid.

Role in 'Constutionalization' of the EU

The Court of Justice has played a crucial role in the “constitutionalization” of the European Union, promoting the EU integration process and transforming an economic authority in a political entity. In this context, it is necessary to mention two landmark judgements of the ECJ: Van Gend en Loos (1963) and Costa v ENEL (1964). In the former, the Court of Justice stated that the EU law may have – if it is sufficiently clear, precisely stated, unconditional or non-dependent and confers a specific right for the citizen to base his or her claim on – direct effect, meaning that it is directly enforceable by European citizens, regardless of whether the Member States have introduced national measures to implement the EU provisions. The doctrine of “direct effect” could not operate without the principle of supremacy expressed in Costa v ENEL. In this judgement, the Court of Justice stated that EU law take precedence over domestic law. In case of conflict between the national law and the European law, the national courts disapply the domestic provision so that the EU law can take effect.

See also