European Court of Justice
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is the judicial institution of the European Union. This means that it deals with disputes between parties as the courts do in Ireland. The ECJ has the important function of ensuring that European law is interpreted and applied in the same way in every member state. It sits in Luxembourg and is composed of 28 judges, one judge from each member state. In addition to the 28 judges at the ECJ, there are 8 Advocate Generals who deliver reasoned opinions on cases to assist the ECJ in making its decisions.
Judges and Advocate Generals of the ECJ must have the qualifications to be appointed to the highest national courts in their member states or they may be jurisconsults (academic lawyers). Their independence must be beyond doubt. This means that once they are appointed, they may not hold any other office of an administrative or political nature and they may not engage in any occupation, paid or unpaid. The Judges and Advocate Generals are appointed by joint agreement of the governments of the member states. They have a renewable term of 6 years.
The European Court of Justice sits and hears cases all year round.
The Court of First Instance was set up in 1989. The Court of First Instance rules on certain categories of cases at first instance, for example, cases relating to breach of competition law, breach of commercial policy or social policy or disputes concerning EU staff regulations. Decisions of the Court of First Instance may be appealed to the ECJ.
The ECJ upholds the Treaties and ensures that European law is interpreted and applied in the same way across the EU through various forms of legal action. These include:
- Preliminary rulings. To avoid differences of interpretation of EU law by national courts, the preliminary ruling procedure allows co-operation between national courts and the ECJ. If a case comes before a national court that involves an interpretation of an EU law and there is a doubt as to how it should be interpreted, the national court will refer the question to the ECJ to decide. The ECJ will make a decision as to how the law should be interpreted or applied and will send that decision to the national court. The national court must then apply that decision to the case before it.
- Proceedings for failure to fulfill an obligation. The Commission or a member state may commence proceedings at the ECJ to force a member state to comply with EU law. If the ECJ decides that the member state in question is at fault, the member state must rectify the situation without delay.
- Proceedings for annulment. A member state, the Commission, the Council of the European Union or the European Parliament may request the annulment or cancellation of an EU law. This may happen if an EU institution enacts a law that conflicts with the EU Treaties. If the ECJ agrees that the disputed law is contrary to the Treaties, it will declare the law null and void. Private individuals may also bring proceedings for annulment of an EU law if they can demonstrate that the disputed law affects them directly and individually. To bring proceedings for annulment, you should obtain legal advice and/or representation. You do not need to go through the national courts first in order to bring proceedings for annulment in the ECJ. If you lose the case at the ECJ, you may be liable to pay the costs of both sides. If you succeed, your costs will be paid by the EU and the law will be declared null and void throughout the EU.