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Useful Notes / French Courts

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Accusé, levez-vous!Translation 

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 cannot 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 Revolution,note  the French juridical system is divided into two parts:

  • The ordinary stream,note  which deals with the crimes and disputes involving two private individuals.note 
  • The administrative stream,note  where complaints against the State in its official capacity are handled.

Ordinary stream

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 listed on a person's criminal record.
  • Délits penals, or misdemeanors, 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, armed robbery, manslaughter, murder, treason and terrorism; they are tried in a cour d'assise and are punished with sentences up to life in prison.



Fines can be awarded for petty offences and less serious misdemeanors.


Prison terms can be divided into three categories:

  • Emprisonnement, or "imprisonment", for misdemeanors. 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 years to 30 years without early release or parole (the highest sentence possible in French law) 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 law.note  Until recently, the concept of plea bargaining was unknown in French law. All criminal cases were tried, or dismissed. Now it does exist, but only for misdemeanors. Felonies are tried with a jury and three judges. All other crimes are tried without a jury. French judges also play for more of a role, calling and questioning witnesses of their own volition. This is called the Inquisitorial system, as opposed to the Adversarial system of Anglo-American law, where judges are to serve as impartial referees only. Some juges d'instruction or "judges of instruction" actually conduct investigations, though their use is limited.

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.

Former punishments

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), 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.

A death sentence had to be executed through beheading by guillotine or, in cases of felonies against the state or when the guillotine couldn't be moved, firing squad.

Hard labor

Until 1960, travaux forcés, or hard labor, 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 French Guiana. Devil's Island was a common destination.

It was replaced by the sentence of criminal imprisonment.

Crime-related torts

Damages claims based on tortsnote  linked to crimes are claimed by the victim (or in some cases third partiesnote ) acting as the partie civile or "civil party". Their case is heard jointly with the criminal case, on the same procedure and with the same people judging the case. Thus, punishments and compensation for damages are metted out at the same time.

In some cases, persons other than tort/crime victims may join in as "civil parties", such as e.g. anti-racist organizations on racist crimes, human rights organizations on crimes against humanity, women's shelters in domestic violence cases, child defense groups in the case of crimes against children (i.e. child abuse), "public law persons" in the case of arsons and other fire-related crimes, or pro-transparency organizations on corruption cases. At times these may need victim consent in order to enter the procedure (that is the case of racist crimes when they are directed at individuals, or domestic violence, to mention two of the examples here; the other examples do not).

Sometimes it is "civil parties" rather than the public prosecutors office who start court cases. For this to happen, those who wish to become "civil parties" have to complain to the prosecutor about a certain action, and he will investigate. If s/he decides not to go forward, the complainant may then "constitute" him/herself as a "civil party" (constitution de partie civile) in order to cause a criminal investigation by an investigating magistrate (juge d’instruction). This is what happened most notably in the corruption case against the son of the dictator of Equatorial Guinea.


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.

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 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 Court of Assize Appeals, for Assize Court decisions.note .

Specialized courts

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 Labor 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.

Administrative stream

This is the stream which deals with claims against the state.

These courts are rumored 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 by 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 Administrative Appeal 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 courts

Much like the ordinary stream, the administrative stream has courts specialized in a matter:

  • The Commission départementale d'aide sociale, or Departmental Welfare Commission, rules on welfare attribution disputes.
    • The Commission centrale d'aide sociale, or Central Welfare Commission, receives appeals from the Departmental 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 Administrative Appeal 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.

Peculiar courts

Here will be described courts outside the main judiciary organization.

Conseil constitutionnel

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 enamored with the ideas of Rousseau,note  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.

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.

Appearences in fiction: