Court of Justice of the European Union

Jane Lambert
27 May 2010

The Court of Justice of the European Union was established as the judicial body for the European Union by the Lisbon Treaty though it had subsisted as the Court of Justice for the European Communities since 1958 and before then as the Court of Justice of the European Coal and Steel Community.

The reason for the Court is that the European treaties established a new legal order which bound not just the member states of the European Union and the institutions created by the treaties (the European institutions) but also individuals and corporations. This legal order (usually referred to as European law or in some contexts still as Community law) stands alongside the laws of each of the member states (usually referred to as national law) and in case of conflict takes precedence over national law. The purpose of the Court is to interpret European law and to give effect to it in all the member states of the EU.

Ever since its beginning the Court has had three functions:

  • Deciding disputes between the member states and the European institutions;
  • Determining questions of European law referred to it by the courts of the member states; and
  • Resolving disputes between the European institutions and its civil servants.

For many years the same tribunal performed all three functions but the increasing volume of work that resulted from closer European integration necessitated a Court of First Instance. This Court, which was renamed the General Court by the Lisbon Treaty, dealt with such matters as appeals from OHIM (the Community trade marks and designs registry) and the enforcement of competition law. A separate Civil Service Tribunal was established for staff disputes in 2004.

Within each of the member states European law is enforced by the national courts. To ensure the uniformity of European law, art 267 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union permits any national  to seek a preliminary ruling from the Court on the interpretation of the treaties and the validity and interpretation of acts of the institutions, bodies, offices or agencies of the Union  if it considers that a decision on such an issue is necessary to enable it to give judgment. The same article requires courts of final recourse to refer such questions to the European Court.

Further Information

Jane Lambert “Lisbon: All Change” 10 Jan 2010