National courts set to get European role

NATIONAL courts will be given a greater role in untangling disputes involving European law if proposals made by European Commission president Romano Prodi are taken forward by EU ministers.

Prodi has voiced concern about the lengthening “excessive” delays for European Court of Justice cases to come to judgment. The average wait is 21 months, with cases at its sister Court of First Instance (CFI) taking 30 months.

As a result, Prodi and European Commissioner Michel Barnier have proposed wide-ranging reforms to the EU's judicial procedures.

A joint statement says the problem has been “a constant expansion in EU litigation”. In nine years, there has been an 87 per cent increase in requests for preliminary rulings, where European courts give national courts guidance on points of EU law.

As a result, the Commission proposes that “without questioning the principle that the ECJ has exclusive jurisdiction… its role and the role of the national courts be clarified to give greater responsibility to the latter for preliminary rulings”.

Prodi and Barnier also want “greater selectiveness in the use of the preliminary ruling procedure” and suggest transferring jurisdiction to the CFI for direct actions by member states and institutions, at present reserved for the ECJ. The ECJ could then concentrate on disputes “essential to the sound operation of the EU”.

Removing the need of the Commission to go to the ECJ for an uncontested ruling against a member state is also suggested. A decision by the Commission would suffice, with a right of appeal to the ECJ.

To cope with the extra workload, Prodi wants an increase in the number of judges at the CFI and specialist tribunals to relieve the CFI of cases in highly specialised areas, such as trademarks, to be established.