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.
This 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.
Crimes 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.
Fines can be awarded for petty offences and less serious misdemeanours.
Prison 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.
Prison terms below five years can be suspended.
In some older works, you can get references to circonstances atténuantes
or "mitigating circumstances"; the court could award them to meritorious defendants so that their sentences could go below the minimum sentence.
Since 1994 the courts can award any sentence not exceeding the maximum given in lawnote
French prisons exist in the following forms:
- 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
Capital punishment: la Veuve
Until 1981, the death penalty
could be pronounced by the French courts for crimes ranging from aggravated murder (such as patricide
, 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
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.
In 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.
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 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.
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 .
These 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.
Since 1981, military offences are tried in the normal justice system, albeit in specialized divisions of the courts.
Supreme Court: the Cour de Cassation
The 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.
The Court of Cassation handles all appeals in law from all courts of the ordinary stream. Its function is to verify if the law has been correctly applied and to ensure that French law is applied uniformly across French territory.
If the Court finds that a judge
misapplied the law in his ruling, it orders the cassation
, or "quashing", of the ruling. The matter is then remanded to a different court of the same nature as the previous one. If, in a subsequent appeal, a quashing is called for, then the court will sit en banc
and do as in the first step. If, in another subsequent appeal
, a quashing is called for, then the court will sit en banc
and render a final decision.
This 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.
Due 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
The 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.
Much 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
The Sécurité sociale
or National Health Insurance
, also has a similar court system.
Additionally, rulings from disciplinary courts for school students and teachers
, for inmates, for doctors and for pharmacists can be appealed in the Appeal Administrative Court.
Supreme court: the Conseil d'Etat
The Conseil d'Etat
, or State Council
, is the supreme court of the administrative stream and functions like the Court of Cassation.
The State Council also has original jurisdiction in cases of disputes about the validity of an executive decree.
Here will be described courts outside the main judiciary organization.
The Conseil constitutionnel
or Constitutional Council
is a court settling electoral disputes.
This court also has powers of judicial review. Because of the 1789 revolutionaries
being wary of the Parlements
and being enamoured with the ideas of Rousseaunote
, French statesmen were wary of the notion of judicial review.
In fact the Constitutional Council was created in 1958 with the sole mission of settling electoral disputes, and it was only in 1971 by its decision about a law aiming to restrict the freedom of association that the Council gained judicial review powers, and only on statutes which have not been yet promulgated. After the promulgation, the possibility of such review for a statute was Lost Forever
Since 2011 the Council can exercise powers of judicial review during appeals from the Court of Cassation and the State Council.
Cour des Comptes
The Cour des comptes
or Court of Audit
is charged with conducting financial and legislative audits of most public institutions and some private institutions, including the central Government, national public corporations, social security agencies (since 1950), and public services (since 1976).
It has original jurisdiction on financial matters involving national institutions, and appellate jurisdiction on rulings from Regional Courts of Audit. If financial irregularities are detected during the review, the person responsible owes all the lost money to the national treasury
. Its rulings can be appealed to the State Council.
Tribunal des conflits
Having two judicial systems in a country can bring problems of competence, not unlike the situation in the US for federal and state courts
or the divide between common law and equity in the UK
The Tribunal des conflits
, or Jurisdictional Court
, settles jurisdictional conflicts
between the ordinary and administrative streams and awards the case to one of the stream. In cases of contradictory decisions
from both streams, the Court itself settles the matter without any available appeal.
France has thus four
Supreme Courts — and we haven't started on the EU courts.
Apparences in fiction:
- Nikita is sentenced, in the opening of the French version of the film, to criminal imprisonment for life, without no possibility of parole for thirty years, for murdering a cop while robbing a pharmacy.
- Meursault ends up sentenced to death for murdering an Arab in the Algiers Assizes Court.