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European Court of Justice
- The ECJ should not be mistaken for the European Court of Human Rights, a Council of Europe institution.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is formally known as the 'Court of Justice of the European Communities', i.e. the court of the European Union (EU). It is based in Luxembourg, unlike most of the rest of the European Union institutions, which are based in Brussels and Strasbourg.
The ECJ is the supreme court of the European Union. It adjudicates on matters of interpretation of European law, most commonly:
- Claims by the European Commission that a member state has not implemented a European Union Directive or other legal requirement.
- Claims by member states that the European Commission has exceeded its authority.
- References from national courts in the EU member states asking the ECJ questions about the meaning or validity of a particular piece of EC law. The Union has many languages and competing political interests, and so local courts often have difficulty deciding what a particular piece of legislation means in any given context. The ECJ will then give its ruling which is binding on the national court, to which, the case will be returned to be disposed of. The ECJ is only permitted to aid in interpretation of the law, not decide the facts of the case itself.
Individuals cannot bring cases to the ECJ directly. An individual who is sufficiently directly concerned by an act of one of the institutions of the European Union can challenge that act in a lower court, called the Court of First Instance. An appeal on points of law lies against the decisions of the Court of First Instance to the ECJ. Employees of the European Commission and other EU institutions currently sue their employer in the Court of First Instance. However, a specialist Civil Service Tribunal is in the process of being set up to deal with these matters.
The ECJ is made up of 25 judges and 8 Advocates General who serve 6-year renewable terms of office. Each member state of the European Union has the power to nominate one judge, so their number coincides most of the time with the number of member states. However, as the ECJ can only sit with an uneven number of judges, additional judges have been appointed at times when there was an even number of member states. 5 of the 8 Advocates General are nominated as of right by the 5 big member states of the Euopean Union: Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain. The other 3 positions rotate in alphabetical order between the 20 smaller member states; currently, the Netherlands, Austria and Portugal are thus represented.
Although the Advocates General are full members of the ECJ, it is important to note that they are not judges and they do not take part in the court's deliberations. It is the role of the Advocates General to propose to the Court, in complete independence, a legal solution to the cases for which they are responsible. The Advocate Generalís Opinion, although often in fact followed, is not binding on the Court.
The ECJ is frequently confused with the European Court of Human Rights, which is based in Strasbourg. However, while the ECJ is part of the European Union, the European Court of Human Rights is not.
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