- The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is the ultimate interpreter of EU law.
- It is not to be confused with the European Court of Human Rights, which despite the name is not an EU body.
- Put simply, international agreements need international policemen to enforce them. EU laws by and large are concerned with either enforcing a level playing field for commerce across the single market, or matters such as environmental issues that have to be decided at international level.
- The ECJ does not overrule UK or other EU country national courts; rather national courts refer questions of EU law to the ECJ. The ECJ gives its opinion on the questions of EU law that arise and passes the decision back to the national court for it to apply to the case in question, which may involve a mixture of national and EU-level law.
"International agreements require international policemen. The ECJ interprets EU law and passes the result back to EU member state national courts to work into the dispute before the national court. The UK has won significant victories at the ECJ. The ECJ does not overrule national courts. It exists largely to protect competition and is not unfair to the UK."
- The ECJ can also overrule EU bodies such as the Commission if it considers the body has acted outside its legal powers.
- The ECJ is presided over by 28 judges, one from each member state. However individual cases are normally heard by panels of three or five judges (uneven numbers being to prevent the possibility of a tie in a given case). Each judge is nominated by a member state and their appointment is ratified by the other member states.
- The judges serve for renewable terms of six years. The treaties that underpin the EU and its offices of state require that judges are chosen from a pool of legal experts whose independence is “beyond doubt” and who hold the necessary qualifications and experience for such a senior judicial position.
- The ECJ judges between them elect the President of the ECJ for a renewable term of three years. Similarly a vice President is appointed to deputise for the President when required.
- The ECJ judges are assisted by 11 Advocates General. These are responsible for presenting a legal opinion on the cases that come before them and are required to do this if the Court believes that the matter at hand raises a new point of law. The Advocates General present their opinions to the presiding judges but the judges are not bound by them. The Advocates General opinions do tend to hold sway in most cases however.
- Even if we left the EU, there would still have to be courts higher than the UK’s national courts. For example, even in a simple trade agreement between the UK and another country, there would have to be a court that could rule on disputes between the two countries resulting from the agreement.
- The UK has lost some 75% of the cases it has faced in front of the ECJ, but this is because the European Commission, which brings the majority of complaints to the ECJ against EU member states, only brings cases it thinks it will win. France has fared even worse, losing some 90% of its cases at one stage.
- The UK has also had big wins at the ECJ such as the ruling that financial transactions denominated in Euros could be processed outside the group of countries using the Euro, such as in the City of London. The ECJ also ruled that France had to accept British beef after the BSE crisis as it was perfectly safe to eat and France’s refusal to accept it was anti-competitive.
- The ECJ largely exists to protect competition and the European Single Market and isn’t unfair to the UK.