In the Prime Minister’s recent remarks on the UK Government’s approach to the negotiations over the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU), delivered on 17th January, Mrs May stated that one of the Government’s aims is to bring an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK.

What is the Court’s function?

The European Court of Justice forms part of the Court of Justice of the European Union, which hears applications from national courts within the EU to ensure that EU law is interpreted and applied in the same way in all EU countries, as well as settling legal disputes between national governments and EU institutions.

The Court of Justice of the European Union is divided into two courts: the Court of Justice, which deals with requests for preliminary rulings from national courts, and the General Court which rules on actions for annulment brought by individuals companies and EU Governments.

Individuals or companies who have suffered damage as a result of action or inaction by an EU institution or its staff may take action against that institution or its staff either indirectly through the national courts of the EU member state, which may then decide to refer the case to the Court of Justice, or directly before the General Court, where a decision by an EU institution has affected the individual directly.

Cases commonly heard by the European Court of Justice

The most common types of case heard by the Court are:

  • Interpreting the law – National courts of EU countries are required to ensure EU law is properly applied, but courts in different countries might interpret it differently. If a national court is in doubt about the interpretation or validity of an EU law, it can ask the Court for clarification. The same mechanism is used to determine whether a national law or practice is compatible with EU law.
  • Enforcing the law – Cases brought against a national government for failing to comply with EU law. The case can be started by the European Commission or another EU country. If the country is found to be at fault, it must put things right at once.
  • Annulling EU legal acts – If an EU act is believed to violate EU treaties or fundamental rights, the Court can be asked to annul it by an EU government, the Council of the EU, the European Commission or (in some cases) the European Parliament. Private individuals can also ask the Court to annul an EU act that directly concerns them.
  • Ensuring that the EU takes action – The European Parliament, Council and Commission must make certain decisions under certain circumstances.
  • Sanctioning EU institutions – Any individual or company who has had their interests harmed as a result of the action or inaction of the EU or its staff can take action against them through the Court.

Had the Government’s approach to the ‘Brexit’ negotiations included continued membership of the EU Single Market, the UK would have had to continue to be subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Mrs May’s announcement that the UK will leave the Single Market means that the UK Supreme Court, in civil matters, will be the final court of appeal for UK citizens.

Difference between the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights

It should, however, be pointed out that the European Court of Justice is distinct from the European Court of Human Rights. The latter is an international court established by the European Convention on Human Rights, which hears applications where a state contracting to the Convention is alleged to have breached human rights provisions concerning civil and political rights. Regardless of the UK’s exit from the EU, the United Kingdom remains, at present, a signatory to the Convention, by virtue of its membership of the Council of Europe.