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Lisbon Treaty Ratified, EU Courts Gain Influence

(CN) - The Lisbon Treaty, ratified by 27 member states of the European Union last month, takes effect today. The treaty reshapes the role of the European court, modifying its structure and adding to its jurisdictional sweep.

The European court, now called the Court of Justice of the European Union, still has three branches: the Court of Justice, General Court and Civil Service Tribunal. The Civil Service Tribunal swallowed the branch formerly known as the Court of First Instance, which deals with work relations and Social Security, and is the first stop for disputes between certain EU bodies.

Although the General Court shares some powers with the Court of Justice, its jurisdiction is limited to lawsuits over acts (or failures to act) on the part of European institutions, bodies or agencies, among other things. This includes disputes between member states and the European Commission, and trademark disagreements.

The Court of Justice will continue to provide preliminary rulings on EU law, along with appeals and reviews of decisions from the General Court.

Specialized courts, which replace the judicial chambers, will result from ordinary legislative procedure instead of unanimity.

While judge appointments remain largely the same - by governments of member states, for six-year terms - judicial candidates are now subject to a review panel comprised of seven judges and lawyers.

The number of advocate generals, or court advisors who issue non-binding legal opinions, will rise to 11 from eight, with Poland getting its own permanent advocate among the "Big Five": Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain. The other six advocate generals rotate among the smaller member countries.

The treaty also gives the Court of Justice sweeping new jurisdiction, as it acquires full authority over European Union law. Its decisions on police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters are now binding, and the court may also review acts of the European Council, described by some as the "motor of integration."

The court will judge issues related to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which establishes basic human rights for all member citizens. Britain and Poland won exemptions from application of the charter; Poland had objected on the basis of moral conflicts with gay rights, while Britain sought to avoid potential labor conflicts.

Security decisions are still subject to special rules, but enforcement of monetary sanctions is hoped to be sped in the case of non-payment.

The changes are also intended to ease the ability of individuals to bring actions. And any court may now request a preliminary ruling, not just member countries' high courts.

The court's jurisdictional scope will take five years to reach full implementation.

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