Court of Justice of the European Union

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in Luxembourg encompasses three distinct courts (Court of Justice, General Court, and Civil Service Tribunal) that exercise the judicial functions of the European Union (EU), which aims to achieve greater political and economic integration among EU Member States. However, the Civil Service Tribunal only considers labor disputes raised by EU civil servants against EU institutions. The CJEU has competence to hear individual complaints of alleged human rights violations, which are decided by the General Court  and may be reviewed on appeal by the European Court of Justice.

The current EU Member States are: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Originally established in 1952 as the Court of Justice of the European Coal and Steel Communities to ensure observance of the law “in the interpretation and application” of the EU treaties, CJEU currently holds jurisdiction to:

  • review the legality of institutional actions by the European Union;
  • ensure that Member States comply with their obligations under EU law; and,
  • interpret European Union law at the request of the national courts and tribunals.

The CJEU hears complaints brought by individuals through the subsidiary General Court under three circumstances under Article 263 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). First, individuals may bring a “direct actions” against any body of the EU for acts “of direct and individual concern to them.” Second, individuals may bring “actions for annulment” to void a regulation, directive or decision “adopted by an institution, body, office or agency of the European Union” and directly adverse to the individual. Third, individuals may bring “actions for failure to act” that can challenge an adverse failure of the EU to act, but “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.” General Court judgments and rulings on an individual action may be appealed, only on points of law, to the Court of Justice.

The EU recognizes “three sources of European Union law: primary law, secondary law and supplementary law. The main sources of primary law are the Treaties establishing the European Union. Secondary sources are legal instruments based on the Treaties and include unilateral secondary law and conventions and agreements. Supplementary sources are elements of law not provided for by the Treaties. This category includes Court of Justice case-law, international law and general principles of law.”

An essential, primary source of EU human rights law is the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which covers the civil, political, economic and social rights protected within the EU. The Charter binds EU bodies, and also applies to domestic governments in their application of EU law, in accordance with the Treaty of Lisbon.

The CJEU also views the European Convention of Human Rights as embodying principles of law applicable in EU Member States. See, e.g., Criminal Proceedings against Gianfranco Perfili, Case C-177/94, Judgment of 1 February 1996. In that case, the Court stated:

According to settled case-law, where national legislation falls within the field of application of Community law, the Court, when requested to give a preliminary ruling, must provide the national court with all the elements of interpretation which are necessary in order to enable it to assess the compatibility of that legislation with the fundamental rights — as laid down in particular in the European Convention of Human Rights — the observance of which the Court ensures.  However, the Court has no such jurisdiction with regard to national legislation lying outside the scope of Community law (see the judgment in Case C-159/90 Society for the Protection of Unborn Children Ireland v Grogan and Others [1991] ECR 1-4685, paragraph 31).

Thus, although the primary goal of the EU has been economic and political integration, the CJEU has decided many cases that deal with fundamental rights. See Defrenne v. Sabena, Case 43/75, [1976] E.C.R. 455 (non-discrimination); Prais v. Council, Case 130/75, [1976] E.C.R. 1589 (freedom of religion); Union Syndicale-Amalgamated European Pub. Serv. Union v. Council, Case 175/73, [1974] E.C.R. 917 (freedom of association); VBBB & VBVB v. Commission, Joined Cases 43 & 63/82, [1984] E.C.R.19. (freedom of expression); and other cases dealing with the legality of anti-terrorism measures.

Further information about other sources of EU law is available from the European Institute for Public Administration, including Tomasz Kramer’s presentation on Primary and Secondary Sources of EU Law Practical analysis of EU Legal Instruments.

The European Court of Justice’s Rules of Procedure and other governing texts can be found online.  The General Court has its own Rules of Procedure.