ECJ rules on the accessibility of harmonised European standards.

RH – 03/2024

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on 5 March 2024, that harmonised European standards are part of Union law due to their legal effects and must therefore be freely accessible.

The case

In 2018, the European Commission rejected the motion for access to several technical standards in the field of toys filed by two non-profit organisations, Public.Resource.Org Inc. and Right to Know CLG, which campaign for the free accessibility of legal information and documents. The General Court of the European Union (Court) declared the European Commission's actions lawful in 2021.

The two organisations appealed against this ruling and have now been successful. The ECJ overturned the judgement of the General Court and declared that the European Commission should have granted the plaintiffs access to the harmonised standards. It was argued that the requested standards are part of Union law and that therefore there is an overriding public interest in their dissemination.

Harmonised European standards

Harmonised European standards are guidelines for the technical specifications of products, services or processes. They play an important role in the single market of the European Union (EU). In the area of product safety, European legislation generally only stipulates basic requirements for the safe marketing of products in the EU. These requirements are then specified by the (private-law) European standardisation organisations CEN, CENELEC and ETSI on behalf of the European Commission in the form of harmonised technical standards. The development of the standards themselves is channelled through the national standardisation organisations, such as DIN in Germany. These are financed, among other things, by the sale of standards to manufacturers and companies. Only the references of the harmonised standards are published in the Official Journal of the EU.

Compliance with harmonised standards is generally voluntary and not required by law. However, it has various advantages for manufacturers and companies. If products have a standardised quality, they are compatible and comparable. This facilitates market access. If a product complies with the specifications of a corresponding standard, it is also assumed that it is also compliant with the legal (safety) requirements on which the standard is based. This is why standards are also relevant for occupational health and safety.

Impact on the European standardisation system

There is still a great deal of uncertainty about the consequences of the judgement, since the decision leaves many aspects related to accessibility open. A possible obligation to make harmonised European standards unconditionally available free of charge in the future could significantly change the way the European standardisation system currently functions.