Jasper Krommendijk* & Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius**
*Public law institute for State and Law (SteR), Radboud
University, The Netherlands
** iHub and Institute for Computing and Information
Sciences, Radboud University, The Netherlands
jasper.krommendijk[at]ru.nl & frederikzb[at]cs.ru.nl
Photo credit: MartinD,
How to read judgments of the Court of Justice of the
European Union (CJEU)? We often get that question from our students, especially
those without a legal background. In this blog post, we give some tips to read and
interpret such judgments. The blog post is mainly aimed at students who
encounter CJEU judgments for the first time. But perhaps the blogs post could
also be useful for other readers, such as lawyers from outside the EU, and
The CJEU is one of the institutions of the European Union (see
Article 19 TEU). It is based in Luxembourg. Sometimes it
is called by its old name, the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The CJEU consists
of two courts: the General Court (formerly the Court of First Instance) and the
Court of Justice. We use the abbreviation 'CJEU' even though this
abbreviation refers to the institution including the General Court (references for a preliminary ruling are,
however, only handled by the CJ (Court of Justice)).The Court
of Justice is composed of 27 judges: one judge of each EU Member state, and of
11 Advocates General. An Advocate General is, in short, an official advisor to
We focus on judgments in which the CJEU answers preliminary
questions by national judges. The great majority of judgments are rendered in
the context of this preliminary ruling procedure (Article 267 TFEU), although the CJEU
gives different types of judgments in different procedures, including
infringement procedures (Article 258 TFEU) and actions for annulment (Article
263 TFEU). National judges in the EU can, and sometimes must, ask the Court of
Justice of the European Union for a preliminary judgment concerning the
interpretation of EU law (Article
267(2) and (3) TFEU). A judge from the highest national court is obliged
to ask the CJEU for a preliminary ruling, if the judge is unsure about how to
interpret a rule in EU law. Hence, a procedure before the CJEU starts with a
question from a national judge, a ‘preliminary question’ (or a 'reference for a
This procedure exists because the EU wants to ensure that EU
laws are not interpreted (and applied) differently across EU Member States. In this
context we teach our students about the magical U-word: uniformity. It would hamper
the uniformity (and hence effectiveness) of EU law if national judges interpreted
EU law differently.
How to find CJEU
CJEU judgments can be found through the Curia website, in
particular through the search form.
Each case at the CJEU has its own case number. Case numbers look like this: C‑673/17. You can also
enter the name of one of the parties in the search from, for instance ‘Planet49’.
If a judgment is published, it also has an ECLI number, such as this one: ‘ECLI:EU:C:2019:801’.
You can also search for a judgment by its ECLI number. If you want to know when
a judgment (or AG Opinion or hearing) is forthcoming, you can consult the judicial calendar
What language to
After finding a case on the Curia site, you can choose which
language version to read on a page like this.
Many judgments are available in all 24 official languages. You can read the
judgment in the language that suits you best. Formally, only one language
version is authentic: the language in which the case was dealt with (see
article 41 of the Rules
of Procedure of the Court of Justice of the European Union). Usually the case is dealt with in
the language of the Member State from which the reference originates. But
the translations are usually precise, so generally speaking, you can read the
judgment in any language.
Often, one of the Advocates General (AG) writes an
‘Opinion’. This opinion is, roughly speaking an official advice to the CJEU.
The CJEU often – but not always – decides in the same way as the Advocate
General suggested. However, the CJEU can also decide differently. The opinion
by the Advocate General can be long and detailed. Sometimes, the CJEU decides
on a case without asking an opinion by an Advocate General, especially when the
case does not entail new or difficult legal questions.
NB: if you want to read a CJEU judgment, be careful that you
do not read the ‘Opinion’ by the Advocate General instead. Sometimes, people
confuse those two documents.
Where to start
reading? Some cheats
Before you start reading a judgment, you could consider a
cheat. For some – at least the most important – judgments, the CJEU publishes a
press release. Unfortunately,
it is difficult to perform a structured search of previous press releases so using
a general search engine (www.startpage.com, www.google.com, etc.) is the best
For many judgments, the CJEU also publishes an abstract. You
can find such an abstract by clicking on ‘List
of documents’ after finding a case on the Curia site. The press release or
the abstract can give you a concise introduction to the judgment.
It can also be helpful to read the introductory paragraphs
of the Opinion of the Advocate General. This Opinion usually gives a succinct
summary of the gist and relevance of the case. What also helps is searching for
blogs discussing CJEU judgments: they usually provide easy to read summaries
and commentaries and then will pinpoint crucial paragraphs. Examples include: EU Law Analysis, EU Law Live and Verfassungsblog.
NB 1: Never refer to the press release and the abstract in
legal writing. Unlike the judgment, those documents do not have formal legal
power. Moreover, they typically miss the nuance and the precision of the actual
NB 2: Law firms, journalists, or bloggers sometimes publish
summaries of judgments too. Generally speaking, we recommend not relying on
such sources for summaries of judgments, unless you know that the author is a
specialist on the topic.
Where to start
reading in the actual judgment?
Judgments by the CJEU look different from judgments by many
other courts. The CJEU answers a preliminary question by a national judge, the
CJEU does not directly decide in a case between two parties. The CJEU leaves it
to the national court to decide the case, on the basis of the (abstract)
interpretation of EU law.
You can, of course, start reading at the top of the
judgment, and read it all the way to the end. That approach would not be wrong.
But we think a different approach is quicker and leads to better understanding.
We suggest the following steps for reading the judgment. We
use the judgment in the Planet
49 judgment from 2019 as an example.
Read the first
paragraphs of the judgment
Start with reading the first paragraphs of the judgment,
just under the heading ‘Judgment’. To illustrate, in the Planet 49 judgment,
read paragraph 1 and 2. The CJEU explains (i) which legal acts the judgment
concerns, and (ii) who the parties in the procedure are.
Read the answer to the
Next, read the CJEU’s answer to the answer to the
preliminary questions. At the end of the judgment, the CJEU answers the
question of the national judge ('dictum'). Those answers are often written in bold.
The questions by national judges may be quite legal-technical, so the answers may
be too. Therefore, the answers can be difficult to read. One way of making the
answers easier to read, is by rephrasing the sentence in such a way that you
shorten the names of EU legal acts.
For instance, in the Planet 49 judgment, the CJEU gives
three answers. The first answer is long, and can look overwhelming:
‘On those grounds, the Court (Grand Chamber) hereby rules:
1. Article 2(f)
and of Article 5(3) of Directive 2002/58/EC of the European Parliament and of
the Council of 12 July 2002 concerning the processing of personal data and the
protection of privacy in the electronic communications sector (Directive on
privacy and electronic communications), as amended by Directive 2009/136/EC of
the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 November 2009, read in
conjunction with Article 2(h) of Directive 95/46/EC of the European Parliament
and of the Council of 24 October 1995 on the protection of individuals with
regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data
and Article 4(11) and Article 6(1)(a) of Regulation (EU) 2016/679 of the
European Parliament and of the Council of 27 April 2016 on the protection of
natural persons with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free
movement of such data, and repealing Directive 95/46 (General Data Protection
Regulation), must be interpreted as meaning that the consent referred to in
those provisions is not validly constituted if, in the form of cookies, the
storage of information or access to information already stored in a website
user’s terminal equipment is permitted by way of a pre-checked checkbox which
the user must deselect to refuse his or her consent.’
You could rephrase the answer by shortening the names of the
Article 2(f) and of Article 5(3) of [the ePrivacy Directive]
read in conjunction with Article 2(h) of [the Data Protection Directive] and Article
4(11) and Article 6(1)(a) of [the GDPR], must be interpreted as meaning that
the consent referred to in those provisions is not validly constituted if, in
the form of cookies, the storage of information or access to information
already stored in a website user’s terminal equipment is permitted by way of a
pre-checked checkbox which the user must deselect to refuse his or her consent.
If you have taken a look at the answers by the CJEU and you
don’t understand what the CJEU is saying or why that is relevant: don’t worry. That
happens to us too. In such situations, the next step often helps.
Read the section ‘The
dispute in the main proceedings and the questions referred for a preliminary
Preliminary rulings have a section called ‘The dispute in
the main proceedings and the questions referred for a preliminary ruling’. In
49 judgment, this section starts at paragraph 25.
This part of the judgment summarizes the national court case
that has led to the preliminary question. By reading this part of the judgment,
you learn about the facts of the case. Those facts help to understand the more legal-technical
parts of the judgment. The section ends with the preliminary questions that the
national judge asks to the CJEU. In the Planet
49 judgment, the questions are in paragraph 37.
Read the section ‘Consideration
of the questions referred’
Next, read the whole section ‘Consideration of the questions
referred’. This section contains the court’s reasoning. We apply the same
strategy for the individual questions as for the judgment, starting with the
introduction (the rephrasing of the question) and conclusion (answer to the
question), before reading the entire section.
The CJEU often rephrases the question by the national judge.
See for instance par. 44 of the Planet
49 judgment: ‘By Question 1(a) and (c), the referring court asks, in
essence, whether (…)’. The rephrased questions are often reader-friendlier than
the original questions that sometimes include references to national laws.
At the end of this section, you can find the CJEU’s answers
to the preliminary question(s) (par. 65). After reading all this, hopefully,
you understand the judgment.
If a sentence in the CJEU judgment refers to a provision of a
legal act, you can often learn the basics of that provision from the sentence itself.
See for instance paragraph 46 of the Planet
49 judgment, in which the court summarizes article 5(3) of the ePrivacy
Directive. If you want to read the provision itself, you can typically find the
provision at the start of the judgment, under the header ‘Legal context’. See
for instance paragraph 3 and further of the Planet
Sometimes, like in this judgment, the CJEU makes some
preliminary observations (paragraph 38-43). Read those too. These observations
usually explain why the CJEU takes a particular route that can differ from the
approach of the national court.
If you are only interested in one of the preliminary
questions, you can read only the relevant part of the section ‘Consideration of
the questions referred’.
Extra: opinion by the
If you want to understand the judgment and the case better,
a good approach is to read the opinion by the Advocate General, if there is
one. These opinions are often reader-friendlier than the judgments. You can see
whether there is such an opinion at a page like this.
Keep in mind though that the opinion is advice to the CJEU.
The CJEU can decide differently than the Advocate General, or the CJEU can use
different reasoning than the opinion. Only the CJEU judgment is binding law!
Sometimes, legal scholars or specialized lawyers write
comments on cases, in blog posts or in so-called ‘case notes’ or ‘annotations’
Such comments can be helpful to understand more of a case. See for instance this
blog post about the Planet 49 case.
However, there are a few caveats. First, you should keep in
mind that the comments provide the author’s opinion, which is not necessarily
the same as the CJEU’s. Second, you should be mindful that the author could be
biased, perhaps because he or she has been involved as a lawyer in a similar case,
or even the case before the CJEU. Third, you should never refer in legal
writing to such a case note to show what a judgment says. You can, however,
refer to such a case comment to show what that particular author thinks about a
We realize that CJEU judgments are not the most
reader-friendly texts. Even EU law practitioners, experts and judges frequently
struggle to decipher what Luxembourg has ruled. We hope that our blog post
helps to make sense of them. Lastly: if you have questions or tips, we would
love to hear them. Thank you!