Useful Notes: French Courts
Let's begin with the fundamentals. Firstly, the French law system is a civil law system and relies solely on statutory law — thus case law can not be enforced there unlike in common law systems. That said, decisions in previous similar cases are persuasive under the principle of jurisprudence constante. Secondly, due to France's involvement in the European Union, law is also influenced by the law and regulations emanating from the EUnote . Thirdly, due to the Revolutionnote , French juridical system is divided into two parts:
- The ordinary streamnote , which deals with the crimes and disputes involving two private individualsnote ;
- The administrative streamnote where complaints against the State in its official capacity are handled.
Ordinary streamThis is the stream which deals with the civil and criminal cases and includes several courts. Law is wholly statutory in this stream and is drawn from statutes and legal codes.
CrimeCrimes are subdivided in three categories in French law:
- Contraventions, or petty offences, are violations of regulations, minor assaults and traffic violations and are tried in the tribunal de simple police which can give fines; such crimes are not on the criminal record.
- Délits, or misdemeanours, are crimes including sex assaults, some cases of theft, robbery and drug possession; they are tried in the tribunal correctionnel and are punished by up to 10 years in prison.
- Crimes, or felonies, are offences including rape, aggravated arson, treason, armed robbery, manslaughter, murder, treason and terrorism; they are tried in a cour d'assise and are punished by up to life-long prison sentence.
FinesFines can be awarded for petty offences and less serious misdemeanours.
PrisonPrison terms can be divided into three categories:
- Emprisonnement, or "imprisonment", for misdemeanours. Prison sentences can last up to 10 years, except for repeat offenders, who face up to 20 years in prison.
- Réclusion criminelle, or "criminal imprisonment", for felonies; can range from 10 to life and in the past entailed the loss of political rights.
- Détention criminelle, or "criminal detention", is the most serious form of imprisonment, and is reserved for felonies against the state such as treason, rebellion, or espionage.
- Maison d'arrêt, or House of Arrest, for prisoners awaiting trial or sentencing, or those being held for less than one year, similar to County Jails in the United States;
- Centre de détention, or Detention Centre, for the better behaved inmates;
- Maison centrale, or Central Prison, roughly equivalent to maximum security prisons in the US
Former punishmentsCapital punishment: la Veuve Until 1981, the death penalty could be pronounced by the French courts for crimes ranging from aggravated murder (such as patricide), treason, and using torture during the commission of a kidnapping or other felony, all the way down to armed robbery and included desertion, arson or dynamiting of a house or causing death or setting a bomb near a public road. Death penalty had to be executed by beheading by guillotine or, in cases of felonies against the state or when the guillotine couldn't be moved, firing squad. Hard labour Until 1960, travaux forcés, or hard labour, was a sentence available as a punishment for felonies and was Exactly What It Says on the Tin. Until 1935 this sentence had to be served in Guyana. It was replaced by the sentence of criminal imprisonment.
CourtsIn French legalese "cour" describes courts whose decisions called "arrêts" cannot be appealed in facts and "tribunal" describes courts whose decisions can be appealed in facts and law.
Premier degréTrans.These are courts of first instance, which are the first courts to be used by claimants:
- The tribunal de grande instance or General Court is a court which settles civil disputes between parties and questions of vital records.
- The tribunal d'instance or Civil Court settles claims less than €10,000 and where no lawyers are needed — which does wonders for shortening the costly procedures. Roughly equivalent to Small Claims courts in the US.
- The tribunal correctionnel, or Criminal Court, deals with misdemeanours.
- The cour d'assises, or Court of Assizes, deals with felonies and sits three judges and six lay membersnote
- The Special Assizes Court has jurisdiction for acts of terrorism and drug trafficking and sits without jury.
- The tribunal de simple police, or Summary Court, settles petty offences.
Deuxième degréTrans.They are appellate courts, which are used by claimants and defendants for appealing in law and facts decisions issued by lesser courts:
- The cour d'appel, or Court of Appeal, which has four sections:
- The criminal section for decisions of the tribunal correctionnel and the tribunal de simple police
- The civil section for decisions of the tribunal d'instance and the tribunal de grande instance
- The trade section for Trade Court decisions
- The labor section for Labor Court decisions
- The cour d'assises d'appel,or Appeal Court of Assizes, for Assize Court decisionsnote .
Specialised courtsThese are courts with jurisdiction over a specific subject. They are classified as premier degré, and their decisions can be appealed as in normal courts.
- The tribunal des prud'hommes, or Labour Court, settles disputes between an employer and his workers and is composed of an equal number of representatives of employees and employers.
- The tribunal maritime, or Admiralty Court, settles naval disputes.
- The tribunal des baux ruraux or Land Tenure Court settles disputes between landowners and tenants and is composed of an equal number of both.
- The tribunal de commerce or Trade Court settles trade and business disputes in a court where business representatives serve as judges.
- Juvenile courts:
- The cour d'assises des mineurs, or Juvenile Assizes Court, judges juveniles between 16 and 18 for felonies.
- The tribunal des mineurs, or Youth Offenders Court, judges the other cases of offences commuted by juveniles .
- The Juvenile Magistrates Court, created by President Nicolas Sarkozy, deals with juvenile repeat offenders who have committed misdemeanours.
Supreme Court: the Cour de CassationThe Cour de Cassation, or Court of Cassation, is the Supreme Court of the ordinary stream, and is subdivided in six divisions:
- Three civil divisions:
- The première chambre civile, or First Civil Division, deals with family law, estate law, contract law, individual rights, and professional discipline.
- The deuxième chambre civile, or Second Civil Division, handles divorce, tort law, and electoral disputes.
- The troisième chambre civile, or Third Civil Division, settles disputes involving real estate, housing, and city planning; for this reason, it is also known as the "Land Court".
- The chambre commerciale, financière et économique, or Commercial Division, deals with companies, bankruptcy, intellectual property, and other business law matters.
- The chambre sociale, or Labour Division, handles labour disputes such as workers compensation.
- The chambre criminelle, or Criminal Division, handles criminal cases.
Administrative streamThis is the stream which deals with claims against the state. These courts are rumoured to be very slow, and some joke any final ruling will be issued after the death of the appellant.
LawDue to the lack of interest of the Parliament, courts had to develop legal doctrines to apply in the cases they had to settle. Thus French administrative law is more similar to The Common Law.
CourtsThe courts pertaining to the administrative stream are:
- the tribunal administratif, or Administrative Court, is the court of first instance, where cases begin.
- the cours administratives d'appel, or Appeal Administrative Court, is where rulings from the Administrative Court are appealed; it was created in 1987 so that the Conseil d'Etat had a lower workload.
Specialized courtsMuch like the ordinary stream, the administrative stream has courts specialized in a matter:
- The Commission départementale d'aide sociale, or Departemental Welfare Commission, rules on welfare attribution disputes.
- The Commission centrale d'aide sociale, or Central Welfare Commission, receives appeals from the Departemental Welfare Commission and its rulings can themselves be appealed in the State Council