There are two European courts, which have the task of interpreting and enforcing EU law: the European Court of Justice and the European Court of the First Instance. Both are based in Luxembourg.
These bodies should not be confused with the European Court of Human Rights, which is an arm of the Council of Europe, which enforces and interprets the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Court of Human Rights sits in Strasbourg.
Nor should they be confused with the Court of Auditors. This is an EU body, but its role is to examine the revenue and expenditure accounts of EU institutions, ensuring that EU funds are spent in accordance with budgetary rules.
The Court of the First Instance (CFI) is an offshoot of the Court of Justice (often known as the 'European Court'), which came about to reduce the growing workload imposed on the former.
Together the two courts act as the EU's constitutional court (ruling on inter-institutional disputes and disputes between the EU and member states), its supreme court (interpreting EU law) and its administrative court (protecting private individuals against maladministration).
The Court of Justice comprises 25 judges – one from each member state and nominated by their governments – appointed for a six-year term, with half the members' terms ending every three years. The judges appointed elect a president, who serves for three years. The judges are assisted by eight advocates-general.
The power of the court to influence the EU's development is limited by its lack of any power to initiate cases – it can only consider matters that are referred to it by third parties, including EU institutions, member states, corporate bodies and individuals.
The court undertakes two types of action: direct actions and preliminary rulings. The former seek rulings in disputes between institutions or individuals for breaches of EU law; the latter are requests for authoritative interpretation of points of EU law.
Direct actions include:
Proceedings for failure to fulfil an obligation under the treaties,
Proceedings for the annulment of EU law
Proceedings for failure to act
Proceedings to establish liability and award damages in civil suits brought against the EU
Requests for preliminary rulings are made to the court exclusively by national courts – and the court is permitted only to respond to the precise question it has been asked. The council and the commission may also seek the court's opinion on the compatibility of international agreements with EU law.
The Court of Justice also hears appeals against judgements made by the CFI – but these can only be on points of law, generally lack of CFI jurisdiction, breach of procedural rules and infringement of EU law.
The court's procedures are extremely slow and laborious, with preliminary rulings typically taking 18 months, and direct actions two years. In urgent cases, the court is able to issue interim rulings through accelerated procedures.
The CFI also comprises 25 judges – one from each member state – but does not include advocates-general. The CFI does not deal with particularly sensitive cases or those involving national governments. Rather its work focuses on direct actions brought by private applicants.
Disputes between the EU and its staff.
Actions brought against the EU or its institutions by bodies corporate or private individuals.