What is European Case Law?

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  • Written By: Terry Masters
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 12 March 2020
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European case law is the body of judicial decisions on cases brought before the European Court of Justice (ECJ). These decisions establish the historical record that other judges in this jurisdiction must follow in applying the law. The ECJ handles cases that involve the international treatises between the members of the European Union.

The European Union is the cooperative coalition of 27 European countries. These countries have agreed to work together and to adhere to governmental and economic standards that benefit the entire union. International agreements, signed by all members, establish the community law that the members have agreed to adopt. The ECJ is tasked with applying that community law in instances where there is a dispute between members of the union.

There are two courts that make up the ECJ, the Court of Justice and the General Court, in addition to certain special tribunals that may be called from time to time for a limited purpose. The ECJ was established in 1952, and is located in Luxembourg. One judge from each of the members of the European Union is appointed to the court. Judges of the ECJ sit in panels of three, five, or thirteen judges.


Cases brought before the ECJ deal exclusively with the international treatises between European Union members, and not with issues that arise in the member countries under their own national law. European case law established by the ECJ, however, trumps national law if the issue arises in the member country. In other words, the member countries are not allowed to individually contravene decisions of the ECJ on community law by passing national laws or taking up the issue in a country’s courts.

The cases decided by the ECJ comprise the body of European case law. This includes the opinions and orders of the courts or advocate generals, in the case of special tribunals. Each country that is a member of the European Union has its own case law that is the record of the decisions of the courts of that country, but only the decisions of the ECJ have the weight of case law that crosses national boundaries and can affect all of Europe.

Historically, European case law was published periodically in the Reports of Cases Before the Court of Justice and the Court of First Instance and the European Court Reports – Reports of European Community Staff Cases. Reference to those periodicals was the only way to access the decisions of the court. European case law has now been digitized and can be accessed through the website of the ECJ.


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