Functions of the EU – Judicial institutions


The European Union (EU) is a political and economic organization composed of 27 member states on the European continent. The main focus of the EU is to promote peace and well-being of all EU citizens, as well as to offer EU citizens security both domestically and across borders. They also aim to work towards the sustainable development of the union. In order to uphold these aims and values, the EU established the European Court of Justice in 1952. The court was established by through The Paris Treaty, when the European Union was still known as the European Coal and Steel Community (also known as ECSP).  At the time of creation, the court had seven judges, one from each member state and an odd in case of a tie in voting. As well as upholding the aims and values of the EU, the judicial systems also deal with cases from fellow EU institutions, and naturally act to ensure that the interpretation and application of EU law is supported in all member states. Since the 1950’s, the judicial system within the EU has evolved and grown substantially.

The point that sets the European courts apart from national courts is that the EU court only have jurisdiction when it comes to EU law and can consequently only interfere in a national court’s affairs if they are breaking EU law. Furthermore, most cases that apply EU law are adjudicated by member states’ national courts.

Currently, the European legal system is divided into three different parts: The General Court, the European Court of Justice, and The Specialised Courts in Specific Areas. The General Court and The Court of Justice both belong to the same institution, “Court of Justice of the European Union” with the court being split into the two courts. To clarify, we tend to simply name the two parts European court of Justice, and The General Court. Sometimes The Court of Justice and The Court of Justice of the European union is referred to using the same name, which is also correct, but the more precise term for the individual court would be “The European Court of Justice” when it comes to the specific court.

The General Court of the EU, also known as “the court of first instance”, was established in 1988 and is a constituent court of the Court of Justice of the EU. Like its parent association, the General Court is located in Luxembourg. The working language of the court is French; however, the proceedings can be conducted in any European language of the petitioner’s choosing. Each member state has two judges represented in the General Court, each judge chosen through common accord of the individual member states’ government, where a panel has ensured that the candidates chosen are perfectly suited and capable of the job. The term of office of a judge in the General Court is six years, with the possibility of renewal. The current president of the General court is Dutchman Marc van der Woude, who was elected in 2019 by the judges of the court, with each presidential term being three years. A registrar, similar to a judge is appointed for a term of six years.

Generally speaking, this particular strand of the EU legal system hears and rules disputes or actions for annulments brought forth by individual citizens, companies and in rare cases EU governments. Thus, the jurisdiction of the general court is not limited to any one topic and mainly rule cases regarding:

  • Direct actions brought forth by private parties brought forward against an institute or agent of the EU or with respect to a decision taken by the EU that directly affects the private party
  • Actions against the European commission
  • Actions seeking compensation for damages directly caused by an institute or agent of the EU
  • Actions arising from contracts made by the EU
  • Actions related to EU trademarks

Consequently, the General Court mainly rules on cases of competition law, state aid, trade, agriculture and trademarks.  As the name “the court of first instance” implies, the General Court hears cases at first instance which are not referred to any of the specialised courts or directly to the Court of Justice. All cases heard at first instance by the General Court may be subject to a right of appeal at the Court of Justice, although only on points of law.

The Court of Justice of the European Union, or European Court of Justice is the EU court that constitutes the highest judicial authority of the EU. It is also the court of final appeal on all matters of EU law, meaning any appeals brought forward by the General Court or any specialised court will be settled in this court. As mentioned above, the EU courts cannot and does adjudicate on cases within national law of a member state, with the exception of the laws which conflict with EU law. The Court of Justice is like the General court located in Luxembourg, with its working language being French. While the working language of the court is French, the cases can be conducted in any European language. The Court of Justice is made up of one judge from each member state, as well as eleven advocates general. The judges and advocates general are appointed by individual member states’ governments and sit for a renewable term of six years. The current President of the court is Belgian Koen Lenaerts.

The European Court of Justice typically hears cases relating to interpretation of EU law and ensures that EU law is applied consistently across member states. Similar to the General Court, the Court of Justice can hear cases brought forth by member states and institutions, though rarely an individual case. Usually, the Court of Justice hears cases regarding:

  • References for preliminary rulings, made by member states seeking clarification on EU law
  • Actions for failure to fulfil an obligation, taken when a member state fails to live up to its obligations under EU law
  • Actions for annulment, seeking to discredit a decision taken by an EU institution
  • Actions for failure to act, brought against an EU intuition
  • Appeals on points of law from decisions taken in the General Court
  • Reviews of decisions taken in the specialised courts

Overall, the Court of Justice usually hears cases of applications from national courts for preliminary rulings, annulments and appeals made by member states in question of EU law.

The last part of the EU judicial system is the specialised courts. These courts can be set up for specific areas and can hear and determine cases at first instance. These courts are attached to the General Court and as such the matters discussed at these courts can be appealed in the General Court.

The only specialised court to have been set up thus far is the Civil Service Tribunal, which was called upon to adjudicate in disputes between the EU and its civil service, a responsibility previously undertaken by the General Court. Upon seeing the increasing case load that the General Court had to endure, it was decided that the Civil Service Tribunal should be set up to lighten the case load. The Civil Service Tribunal was established in 2005 and dissolved in 2016, with its responsibilities being transferred back to the General Court as it was chosen that the General Court should increase its size. At the time of function, the court was composed of seven judges.

It should be noted that the European Court of Human Rights is not a judicial institution within the EU, rather a part of the Council of Europe. This institution was created to ensure respect and accordance to the terms set by the European Convention on Human Rights. While this court may be not be part of the EU judicial system, it still has influence on EU law as the basic guaranteed in the European Convention on Human Rights constitutes the general principles of EU law.

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