The Court of Justice of the European Union constitutes the judicial authority of the European Union which ensures the uniform application and interpretation of EU law. The Court of Justice of the European Union consists of two courts:
- the Court of Justice;
- the General Court.
The Court of Justice of the European Union has a clearly defined jurisdiction, which it exercises in references for preliminary rulings and in various other categories of proceedings.
The various types of proceedings before the Court of Justice
- References for preliminary rulings
The individual legal rights conferred directly or indirectly by the EU acquis are to be enforced by individuals before national courts.
The Court of Justice cooperates with all the courts of the Member States, which are the ordinary courts in matters of European Union law. To ensure the effective and uniform application of European Union legislation and to prevent divergent interpretations, the national courts may, and sometimes must, refer to the Court of Justice and ask it to clarify a point concerning the interpretation of EU law, so that they may ascertain, for example, whether their national legislation complies with that law. A reference for a preliminary ruling may also seek the review of the validity of an act of EU law.
The Court of Justice’s reply is not merely an opinion, but takes the form of a judgment or reasoned order. The national court to which it is addressed is, in deciding the dispute before it, bound by the interpretation given. The Court’s judgment likewise binds other national courts before which the same problem is raised.
It is thus through references for preliminary rulings that any European citizen can seek clarification of the European Union rules which affect him. Although such a reference can be made only by a national court, all the parties to the proceedings before that court, the Member States and the institutions of the European Union may take part in the proceedings before the Court of Justice. In that way, several important principles of EU law have been laid down by preliminary rulings, sometimes in reply to questions referred by national courts of first instance.
- Actions for failure to fulfil obligations
These actions enable the Court of Justice to determine whether a Member State has fulfilled its obligations under European Union law. Before bringing the case before the Court of Justice, the European Commission conducts a preliminary procedure in which the Member State concerned is given the opportunity to reply to the complaints addressed to it. If that procedure does not result in the Member State terminating the failure, an action for infringement of EU law may be brought before the Court of Justice.
The action may be brought by the European Commission – as, in practice, is usually the case – or by a Member State. If the Court finds that an obligation has not been fulfilled, the State must bring the failure to an end without delay. If, after a further action is brought by the Commission, the Court of Justice finds that the Member State concerned has not complied with its judgment, it may impose on it a fixed or periodic financial penalty. However, if measures transposing a directive are not notified to the Commission, it may propose that the Court impose a pecuniary penalty on the Member State concerned, once the initial judgment establishing a failure to fulfil obligations has been delivered.
- Actions for annulment
By an action for annulment, the applicant seeks the annulment of a measure (in particular a regulation, directive or decision) adopted by an institution, body, office or agency of the European Union. The Court of Justice has exclusive jurisdiction over actions brought by a Member State against the European Parliament and/or against the Council (apart from Council measures in respect of State aid, dumping and implementing powers) or brought by one European Union institution against another. The General Court has jurisdiction, at first instance, in all other actions of this type and particularly in actions brought by individuals.
- Actions for failure to act
These actions enable the lawfulness of the failure of the institutions, bodies, offices or agencies of the European Union to act to be reviewed. However, such an action may be brought only after the institution concerned has been called on to act. Where the failure to act is held to be unlawful, it is for the institution concerned to put an end to the failure by appropriate measures. Jurisdiction to hear actions for failure to act is shared between the Court of Justice and the General Court according to the same criteria as for actions for annulment.
Appeals on points of law only may be brought before the Court of Justice against judgments and orders of the General Court. If the appeal is admissible and well founded, the Court of Justice sets aside the judgment of the General Court. Where the state of the proceedings so permits, the Court of Justice may itself decide the case. Otherwise, it refers the case back to the General Court, which is bound by the decision given by the Court of Justice on the appeal.
The various types of proceedings before the General Court
- direct actions brought by natural or legal persons against acts of the institutions, bodies, offices or agencies of the European Union (which are addressed to them or are of direct and individual concern to them) and against regulatory acts (which concern them directly and which do not entail implementing measures) or against a failure to act on the part of those institutions, bodies, offices or agencies; for example, a case brought by a company against a Commission decision imposing a fine on that company;
- actions brought by the Member States against the Commission;
- actions brought by the Member States against the Council relating to acts adopted in the field of State aid, ‘dumping’ and acts by which it exercises implementing powers;
- actions seeking compensation for damage caused by the institutions of the European Union or their staff;
- actions based on contracts made by the European Union which expressly give jurisdiction to the General Court;
- actions relating to intellectual property brought against the European Union Intellectual Property Office and against the Community Plant Variety Office;
- disputes between the institutions of the European Union and their staff concerning employment relations and the social security system.
The decisions of the General Court may, within two months, be subject to an appeal, limited to points of law, to the Court of Justice.
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