Recent media coverage of the EU Court of Justice suggests that the period of ‘benign neglect by the powers that be and the mass media’ – once described by Professor Eric Stein – may well be truly over once and for all. The most unexpected aspect of this rather unique level of media attention is that it does not directly concern any particular judicial ruling by a Court, which, since it decided its first case in 1954, has issued more than 28,000 judgments and orders. Instead, the Court of Justice (CJ) and its President, Mr Vassilios Skouris, have been subject to unprecedented media scrutiny following intense internal infighting about a contentious proposal which officially aims to ‘reinforce the efficiency of justice at EU level’ by doubling the number of judges working at the General Court (GC).
Before offering a review of the CJ’s diagnosis and critically assessing the solutions defended by its President, it may be worth briefly recalling that the GC – initially known as the EU’s Court of First Instance – was set up in 1989 to help the CJ cope with its increasing workload. To help in turn the GC cope with a similar issue, the first EU specialised ‘judicial panel’ was set up in 2005: Known as the EU Civil Service Tribunal (CST), the jurisdiction is exclusively limited to disputes between the EU and its civil servants and consists of 7 judges. By contrast, both the CJ and the GC currently consist of 28 judges, with one judge from each Member State. The CJ is however also assisted by nine Advocates-General.
The Court of Justice’s diagnosis
The casus belli, which has prompted the current debate about the EU’s judicial architecture, is the increase in the number of new cases brought before the GC (from 398 in 2000 to 912 in 2014); the stock of cases currently awaiting to be decided (1,423 in 2014 and expected to rise to 1,600 in 2015); and finally, the increasing number of actions for damages brought against the EU due to the excessive length of proceedings before the GC on the basis of Article 47 of the EU Charter, which guarantees a right to have cases heard within a reasonable time.
While increasing workload is not in itself a new phenomenon – and has indeed been a recurrent problem for both the CJ and the GC – the latter’s growing workload has been seen as particularly worrying. Indeed, in addition to a rapid increase in the number of cases before it, the GC’s productivity has decreased despite an increase in the number of both judges (due to the Union’s enlargement) and their legal assistants known as référendaires (see howeverhere for a recent update from four GC judges where it is submitted that 80% of the GC’s backlog has now in fact been liquidated and that in the first four months of 2015, the number of completed cases exceeded the number of new cases filed).
In parallel to these distressing trends, the situation has begun to worsen as well with respect to the CST due to the rather childish inability of the Member States to fill two vacant slots since September 2014 – out of a total of seven as previously noted – following persistent disagreement about how the principle of rotation should be implemented.
The Court of Justice’s latest solution
In 2011, the CJ initially refused to consider the creation of new specialised courts – a solution which at the time was favoured by the GC itself – and suggested instead the appointment of 12 extra judges at the GC. However, following persistent disagreements between the Member States on how to rotate the appointments between themselves, this preliminary solution was removed from a package of reforms to the Statute of the Court of Justice.
This led the President of the CJ to suggest last October the progressive doubling of the number of GC judges (from 28 to 56). However, to mitigate the economic burden engendered by the proposed doubling, the abolition of the CST was also suggested – with its seven judges expected to move to the GC – and a gradual implementation of the reforms, with an initial increase of 12 judges in 2015; a further increase of 7 in 2016 following the dissolution of the CST and the transfer of its case-load to the General Court; and finally, a last set of 9 additional judges to be appointed in 2019. The proposed abolition of the CST was something of a surprise as most observers consider it a success story and indeed, it has been presented as such by President Skouris himself on the occasion of its 5th Anniversary.
Be that as it may, the CJ’s proposal would therefore ‘only’ result in the net creation of 21 extra judges, at an alleged net cost of €13.875m per year, assuming that there are 7 judges working at the CST in 2016. While this amount does not appear to take into account the €168m for the construction of a new tower, an expense which is however justified by the need to ‘repatriate’ staff who have been working in prefabricated buildings since 1999, the economic cost of the CJ’s proposal may be viewed as relatively modest. One may for instance compare this estimated cost to the total amount of damages currently claimed against the EU on the basis of Article 47 of the EU Charter, i.e., €26.8 million. The economic importance of the cases heard by the GC is also such that the cost of the CJ’s proposal is not a significant argument one may raise against it. We argue however that the solution put forward by the President of the CJ (and recently endorsed by the Council) is not adequate both from a structural and sustainability point of view.
As nicely summed up by our colleague Steve Peers, supporters of the CJ’s solution have relied on the following arguments to support the proposal to progressively double the number of GC judges:
- It would be a more flexible solution than the creation of specialised courts to the extent that litigation may increase in areas not initially foreseen and that cases most suitable for specialised courts tend to be repetitive and easy to deal with;
- Keeping such cases closer to the CJ would also make sense considering that the CJ may have to deal with similar cases via national references for a preliminary ruling;
- The appointment of new judges to the GC could be done swiftly and would also avoid any pork-barrel politics should the specialised courts not consist of a judge per Member State (as has been the case with the CST);
- Finally, the CJ’s solution would have the singular advantage of simplifying the EU judicial system.
These are sound arguments but unfortunately none of them are, in our view, empirically substantiated. The lack of any proper prospective impact assessment of the CJ’s proposal is, in this respect, particularly regrettable. Similarly, one may deplore the top-down, not to say authoritarian, approach adopted by the President of the Court, which suggests a deliberate attempt to avoid any meaningful discussion of reasonable alternative proposals, such as the establishment of specialised courts with jurisdiction to hear and determine direct actions in a specific area. The CJ’s proposal also marks a shift away from the principle of specialisation – endorsed by the Masters of the Treaties and set to materialise into the creation of subsequent specialised chambers, such as in trademark litigation (representing around 1/3 of the GC’s workload) – towards a generalist jurisdiction made up of two judges per each Member State.
As for the argument raised against the principle of specialisation – to avoid creating a court with a ‘rigid’ jurisdiction that might not be justified in the light of future workload – well, the same argument could actually be invoked against the creation of a ‘super-GC’ whose future caseload is unlikely to double in the near future. This is especially true given the limited access to justice in direct actions currently granted by the Treaty as interpreted by the CJ. More critically, we submit that the doubling of GC judges is an unnecessary distraction from less visible and arguably more decisive issues such as case management and productivity per personnel unit. Those challenges, if tackled properly, would most likely bring long-lasting benefits to the institution without entailing a radical restructuring of the EU’s judicial system.
We therefore propose to step back from what has become a largely emotive and not always evidence-based debate in order to gauge whether an alternative diagnosis and set of reforms should not be in order. Continue reading