Jean Monnet Center at NYU School of Law


12 The European Court of Justice and Access to Judicial Remedies

The European Court of Justice deserves immense credit for pioneering the protection of fundamental human rights within the legal order of the Community when the Treaties themselves were silent on this matter. It has been the Court that has put in place the fundamental principles of respect for human rights which underlie all subsequent developments. It is worth noting that, in the context of individual rights, the Court, historically, developed a special `user friendly' approach to access. This contrasted with the approach taken in other areas in which individual reliance on Community measures to vindicate rights - whether vis-à-vis Community institutions or Member States - is linked to the doctrine of direct effect which requires clear, precise and unconditional measures.

In the field of human rights, however, the Court has always permitted individual challenges to the legality of measures on the grounds of an alleged violation of human rights, even though these, by definition, could not always be considered clear and precise in the absence of a written Community `bill of rights' or formal accession to the European Convention. The value and importance of this approach should be underlined. The Court has not only made the material provisions of the European Convention de facto binding on the Community, but has also commenced in recent time to rely more extensively on the jurisprudence of the Strasbourg Organs. This development is to be strongly welcomed.

There is, however, one area where the judicial protection of individuals within the legal order of the Community and as concerns rights within the field of application of Community law is unsatisfactory, and the remedy to this inadequacy lies in the hands of the Court.

Individual and group standing to challenge Community measures directly before the Court(s) through the means of Article 230 TEC is, and has been, extremely restrictive. The conditions created by the Court of Justice to satisfy the Treaty requirements of being `individually and directly concerned' are such that individual plaintiffs or groups representing individuals are for the most part shut out from direct challenges before the European Court.108 This situation is particularly grave when the challenges in question concern alleged violations of human rights by Community institutions or by Member States operating on behalf of the Community.

The Court has indicated in its jurisprudence (such as in the Greenpeace Case) that individuals may always seek a remedy before national courts which may, or in prescribed circumstances must, make a reference to the European Court of Justice under Article 234. But the expansion and complexity of Community governance has demonstrated that the complementarity of Articles 230 and 234 is no longer assured. The rules of standing before national courts may defeat meritorious plaintiffs without the case ever reaching the European Court of Justice. Likewise, there is no guarantee that national courts will always make a preliminary reference.

As a result, the issue of access to justice in the field of human rights requires review both by the Court itself and by the Community legislator.

Specifically, consideration should be given to the following measures:

1. The Court should revisit its jurisprudence on Article 230 with a view to facilitating the standing of individuals and public interest groups alleging the violation of fundamental human rights. Articles 6 and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights should guide such jurisprudence. Specifically, access to the ECJ should always be available where no other guaranteed judicial route is available before national courts or where national courts have refused to make a reference.
2. The Court should also revisit its jurisprudence and, if necessary, request a revision of its Statute, in order to facilitate intervention by recognized public interest groups. The current automatic right of intervention of Member States must be balanced by a right of intervention by other public groups which may better inform the Court of sensitive societal concerns in the field of human rights
3. Within the sphere of application of Community law, rules of standing before national courts should be amended to allow recognized non-governmental organizations to initiate cases. The Community has already pioneered such a scheme in the field of consumer protection and the same principle should be extended to human rights more generally.
4. Access to justice is often defeated by lack of the resources required to bring meritorious cases or test cases even where procedurally such action would be possible. The Directorate-General for Human Rights should be authorized to oversee an adequate legal aid scheme to facilitate the funding of meritorious cases in the field of human rights. Since such cases might be directed at the Commission itself, independent intermediaries must also be found to oversee the allocation of such funding without, however, having their hands tied by conflict of interest.

There is reason to be concerned by the dangers caused by refusal of national courts to make references in the field of human rights on the basis of Article 234, especially when the issue concerns an alleged violation by a Member State within the sphere of application of Community law. At present, the only remedy available to the individual is to lodge a complaint with the Commission in the hope that it will take the matter up through negotiation, and eventually by commencing proceedings under Article 226. This is an unsatisfactory situation, both practically and symbolically. In meritorious cases individuals should have access to courts without the sanction of those they may be complaining about.

In effect, there should be recognition in the procedural field of the same principle which animated the Court substantively in its Francovich jurisprudence. In relation to matters which concern a Community violation, it has already been proposed that the European Court of Justice should revisit its jurisprudence relating to Article 230. But this would not help vis-à-vis Member States.

What is needed is a Treaty amendment to Article 227 which would allow in such cases for recognized public interest groups to bring an action before the European Court of Justice - although only after the Commission itself declines to do so. The merit of this proposal lies not only in enhancing the judicial protection of human rights within the Community legal order, but also in preventing Member States having to defend before the European Court of Human Rights measures adopted on behalf of the Community without the latter having the right to defend itself.

108 Harlow, `Access to Justice as a Human Right. The European Convention and the European Union', in Alston, supra note 10.

Top Of Page|Previous|Title|Next