The European Case Law Identifier (ECLI) is a human readable and computer processable code that can – in principle – be assigned to every judicial decision from every national or European court. Its aim is to facilitate unequivocal citation of judgments and to improve cross-border accessibility of case law.
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The decision on the (voluntary) implementation of the ECLI has been taken by the Council of the European Union in December 2010. Within these 'Council Conclusions' also a set of fifteen metadata has been decided upon to improve searchability of published judicial decisions.
To complete the ECLI infrastructure the European Commission has developed a search engine that can index all judgments with an ECLI assigned, from whatever data provider. Responsibility for national implementation of the European Case Law Identifier is borne by the national ECLI co-ordinators.
Access to case law is of fundamental importance for the Rule of Law: it facilitates the scrutiny of justice, contributes to the transparency of the judiciary and informs the public about the continuous development of the law. Apart from access to national case law, the integration of Europe also necessitates for easy and cross border access to case law of the European courts and other Member States of the European Union.
In the Cilfit Case (ECLI:EU:C:1982:335) the Court of Justice even decided that in specific circumstances the national judge has an obligation to consult the case law of other European Member States.
Although in recent years we have witnessed an impressive increase in the number of judicial decisions published online, qualitative accessibility of the information contained therein has not kept pace with this quantitative growth.
The lack of standardized identifiers, citation styles, metadata and document structures seriously hampers effective case law search. The adoption of the ‘ECLI Council Conclusions’ was an important step in addressing these problems.
The introduction of ECLI was a result of political demand for an improved cross-border accessibility of national case law. Judicial decisions are registered in various national and cross-border databases, but often having a different identifier in each and every database or law review.
All these identifiers – if known at all – had to be cited to enable readers of the citation to find the cases in the database of their preference. Different citation rules and styles complicated the search. Moreover, users had to go to all the databases to find out whether these documents were available – s ummarized, translated or annotated.
By creating one single overarching identifier – that can also be used for citation – a standardized set of metadata and one European search interface, a first but important step has been taken to improve the cross-border and multilingual accessibility of judicial decisions within the European Union.
The expected benefits of ECLI are the following:
Simplified citing of case law
Case law of national, European or foreign courts will be easily citable by using ECLI. All legal professionals, academics included, will profit by spending less time on studying citation style guides and searching for the right identifiers. Since many more decisions will have an ECLI after the project is finished, case law will be citable more easily.
Improved case law search over multiple repositories by having a unique identifier (ECLI)
Reading a case law citation in a legal document mostly means a lot of trouble for the reader: he has to discover where the cited judgment might be found and how and which number has to be entered into which search field. But when an ECLI is used for citation, the reader just has to go the ECLI Search Engine of the European e-Justice Portal, enter the ECLI and discover immediately in which repositories the judgment is available in which languages.
Improved application of EU law by national judge
The judge will be substantially facilitated to find relevant case law from other Member States, and will therefore finally be able to comply with the obligation imposed on him by the Court of Justice in the Cilfit case.
Reinforced mutual understanding between the legal communities of the EU Member States.
Taking note of the case law of other Member States is not only relevant in situations where Union law is involved. Improved access to case law will enlarge the opportunities for comparative law studies and therefore contribute to an improved understanding of the similarities and differences between the legal and judicial cultures of the EU Member States.
Reinforcement of the rule of law, since by improved qualitative and quantitative accessibility of case law the transparancy of justice will be strengthened.
In the light of article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, accessibility of case law is necessary to ensure scrutiny of the judiciary by the public. By improving this accessibility, both in qualitative and quantitative sense, transparency of the judiciary will be reinforced and the rule of law strengthened.
ECLI European e-Justice portal
The European e-Justice portal aims to be the one-stop-shop for legal information and online cross border procedures within the EU. Based on the e-Justice Action Plans of the Council of the EU, it is maintained by the European Commission and the Member States. Within is the ECLI framework the European e-Justice portal has two functions.
First, on the ECLI webpage it displays, in all official languages of the EU, general information on ECLI, and more specifically on the way it has been implemented within various Member States.
Secondly, the ECLI Search Engine is part of the European e-Justice Portal. With this search engine one can search all judicial decisions from whatever country or court and from whatever data provider, as long as they have an ECLI assigned and are connected to the Search Engine. The ECLI Search Engine went live on 4 May 2016.
It currently contains around 4.000.000 decisions:
- Court of Justice of the European Union: all decisions;
- Board of Appeal of the European Patent Office: all decisions;
- France: decisions of the Consitutional Court, Supreme Court, Council of State and ‘Tribunal des conflits’.
- Spain: all decisions published on the website of the Spanish Council for the Judiciary;
- The Netherlands: all decisions published on the website of the Dutch Council for the Judiciary;
- Slovenia: all decisions published on the websites of the Supreme Court, the Courts of Appeal and the Administrative Court;
- Germany: decisions of the High Administrative Court;
- Czech Republic: decisions published on the website of the Supreme Court (also from other courts);
- Finland: decisions of the Supreme Court as published on Finlex.fi;
Association of Councils of State and Supreme Administrative Jurisdictions of the European Union: all decisions from the courts mentioned above having an ECLI and being registered in their JuriFast database.