The Court of Justice of the European Communities,
usually called the European Court of Justice (ECJ), is the highest court in the European Union in matters of European Community law. It has the ultimate say on matters of European Union law in order to ensure its equal application across all European Union member states.
The court was established in 1952 and is unlike most other Union institutions based in Luxembourg. The court is composed of one judge per member state currently 27 although it normally hears cases in panels of three, five or thirteen judges. The court is led by a President who since 2003 has been Vassilios Skouris. The court is assisted by a lower court, the Court of First Instance, which has jurisdiction over direct actions brought by natural or legal persons, and by the Civil Service Tribunal, which hears cases brought by employees of the European Union’s institutions.
The European Court of Justice(ECJ) is the highest court of the European Union in matters of Community law, but not national law. It is not possible to appeal the decisions of national courts to the ECJ, but rather national courts refer questions of European Union law to the ECJ. However, it is ultimately for the national court to apply to resulting interpretation to the facts of any given case. This allows even the lowest of courts to refer question of European Union law for a decision, although only courts of final appeal are bound to refer a question of European Union law when one is raised before it. The treaties charge the ECJ with ensuring the consistent application of European Union law across the European Union as a whole, in an attempt to avoid different national courts interpreting and applying in different way.
The court also acts as arbiter between the European Union’s institutions and can annul the latter’s legal rights if it acts outside its powers. It is the responsibility of the Court of Justice to ensure that the law is observed in the interpretation and application of the Treaties of the European Union and of the provisions laid down by the competent Community institutions. To enable it to carry out that task, the Court has wide jurisdiction to hear various types of action. The Court has competence, inter alia, to rule on applications for annulment or actions for failure to act brought by a Member State or an institution, actions against Member States for failure to fulfil obligations, references for a preliminary ruling and appeals against decisions of the Court of First Instance.
The court interprets European Union treaties and legislation. Although it may attempt to reconcile differences between national and European Union laws, ultimately its decisions overrule those of national courts; they have tended to expand the European Union’s domain. Increased litigation over the years led to the establishment (1988) of a lower court, the Court of First Instances; appeals to the Court of Justice are tightly restricted. International law cases involving nations outside the European Union are heard by the World Court in The Hague; the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, is recognized by the members of the Council of Europe and hears cases relating to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Personal Freedoms.