NATIONAL JUDICIAL SYSTEMS
The Member State judicial systems are very diverse, reflecting differences in national judicial traditions.
Judicial Systems In Member States – France
This section provides you with an overview of the national judiciary system and court system in France.
Organisation of justice – judicial systems
Constitution and institutional system
The Constitution is the highest norm in the internal hierarchy. The fifth French Constitution, currently in force, was promulgated on October 4, 1958.
The 1958 Constitution establishes a Democracy based on the Separation of Powers:
– The Executive branch is headed by the Prime Minister and the President of the Republic. The President is elected every five years, and chooses a Prime Minister from the parliamentary majority. The President then appoints the other members of the Government, based on proposals from the Prime Minister.
-The Legislative branch votes the law and is bicameral. The National Assembly, composed of deputies elected for 5 years, is the main legislative chamber. The other chamber is the Senate, composed of senators, indirectly elected for 6 years.
Overview of the judicial system
France has a legal system stemming from Roman law and based upon codified laws. Nevertheless, judges have a duty to interpret the law, and decisions from higher courts have a certain influence on the lower courts, even if the latter are not bound by any of the highest court’s decisions.
The last death sentence passed in France was in 1978. The death penalty was then officially abolished in October 1981.
The judiciary is independent of the executive and legislative powers.
There are several categories of courts divided into two major branches: a Judicial branch and an Administrative branch.
– The Judicial Branch :
The court system is made up of a single superior court, the Cour de Cassation, 36 Appeal Courts (cours d’appel), and first instance courts (164 Judicial Courts – tribunaux judiciaires, 210 Employment Tribunals – conseils de prud’hommes, and 134 Commercial Courts – tribunaux de commerce)
The organization of each Appeal Court and Judicial Court means that lawsuits fall into 2 main categories: civil justice and criminal justice.
The civil courts settle private disputes between individuals, such as divorce, inheritance and property, but do not impose penalties.
At first instance, claims over 10,000 euros are heard by a panel of three judges, whereas lawsuits concerning claims under 10,000 euros are handled by a single judge.
Certain specific cases are assigned, regardless of the amount of the claim, either to a panel of three judges (for instance intellectual property disputes), or to a single judge (for family cases or cases relating to residential leases).
There are specialist courts, with a system of non-professional judges in the first instance courts for some types of disputes :
the conseil de prud’hommes is an employment tribunal that deals with disputes related to employment contracts,
the tribunal de commerce is the commercial court, which deals with commercial litigation.
Decisions from first instance courts regarding claims over 5,000 euros can be appealed before the Court of Appeal.
The criminal courts judge individuals who have committed offenses in breach of criminal law, such as driving without a license, theft, assault, murder, etc.
The French Penal Code provides for three types of offense according to the seriousness of the crime and the type of sentence. Each category of offense has a corresponding first instance court:
The most serious offenses, such as murder, rape, or armed robbery, are known as « crimes », where the sentence is more than 10 years’ imprisonment. These are judged by the Criminal Court (Cour d’assises), which comes under the authority of the Court of Appeal. The Cour d’assises is generally made up of 3 judges and 6 jurors drawn from the electoral roll.
The intermediate level of offense consists of offenses known as “délits”. These are punishable by a prison sentence of less than 10 years. These offenses are dealt with by a lower criminal court known as the Tribunal correctionnel, which is part of the Judicial Court and is generally made up of 3 judges. In some cases, however, where the offense is only punishable by a sentence of less than 5 years, the case may be heard by a single judge.
The final category is contraventions or petty offenses, which are not punishable by a prison sentence. Only fines or alternative sentences (as suspension of driving license for example) can be imposed. In this case, the Police Court (Tribunal de police) has jurisdiction. It sits at the Judicial Court and cases are heard by a single judge.
Appeals against judgments by the Criminal Court are heard by a different court with a larger jury. This is known as the “cours d’assises d’appel” (Criminal Court of Appeal), generally made up of 3 professional judges and 9 jurors.
The Police Court and Lower Criminal Court appeal system follows standard practice: 3 judges from the “chambre correctionnelle” of the Court of Appeal examine the judgment handed down at 1st instance.
The Public prosecutor oversees criminal proceedings, and his role is based on the principle of prosecutorial discretion. The general organization of the Public Prosecutor’s Office is governed by two principles: subordination in the chain of command and indivisibility of the prosecution service.
The French Financial Prosecution Office (parquet national financier) is specialized. Its actions target the most serious criminal investigations related to economic and financial offenses. Its field of competence covers three types of offense: breach of probity, damage to public finances, and market abuse.
The National Antiterrorism Prosecution Office (parquet national anti-terroriste) is also specialized. Its actions target crimes against humanity, war crimes and offenses, terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, torture and forced disappearance.
The investigating judge (juge d’instruction) is an independent judge in charge of judicial investigations in the most serious or complex criminal cases. He or she has a dual mission: to conduct impartial proceedings to establish the truth, and to take certain adjudicative decisions, including the decision to refer a person to a court for judgment. The investigating judge is one of the key people in the French adversarial process.
The sentence enforcement judge (juge de l’application des peines) is tasked with following up the application of sentences. He decides on matters such as whether to grant temporary absence permits, remission, or release on parole, considers alternatives to prison, and monitors suspended prison sentences or community service orders.
There is a special justice system for children. This juvenile justice system concerns not only juvenile delinquents, but also the welfare of minors requiring protection.
The final degree of jurisdiction is the Court of Cassation (Cour de cassation). It is the Highest Court in the French judicial system. It does not rule on the facts but checks whether the law has been properly applied by the lower courts in civil and criminal matters.
– The Administrative Branch:
The administrative courts settle disputes between public authorities (the government, regions, departments or administrative bodies) or State-owned companies on the one hand, and citizens on the other, such as refusal to grant a building permit, claims for compensation arising from damage caused by the activities of public services, challenges to a land use plan or a planned route for a motorway.
The administrative courts include judges whose status and functions differ from the judges in the judicial court system.
There are also specialized administrative courts, which have very specific responsibilities (such as the National Court of Asylum – Cour nationale du droit d’asile, or the various disciplinary sections of professional bodies) and Financial courts.
The Council of State (Conseil d’État) is the highest court in the administrative branch. As its name suggests, it also has the historic role of being the advisory body to the Government for the preparation of regulatory texts.
The Constitutional Council
(Conseil constitutionnel) is an autonomous institution with some judicial competence. It is not situated at the top of the pyramid of the judicial and administrative branches, but its decisions are binding upon all courts, including the Court of Cassation and the Council of State. It has a dual function:
– firstly, it is responsible for ensuring the implementation of the Constitution – in other words, it decides whether or not a law complies with the text of the French Constitution ;
– secondly, it is competent in matters related to electoral disputes.
The Higher Council of the Judiciary
(Conseil supérieur de la Magistrature) assists the President of the Republic, whose mission under the Constitution is to guarantee the independence of judicial authorities. Some of its attributions are related to the appointment and discipline of judges and public prosecutors. These rules are aimed at sheltering the judiciary from the risk of partisan influences.
Training of judges and justice personnel
Justice personnel are trained in different schools, among which the following may be mentioned:
The French National School for the Judiciary (Ecole nationale de la magistrature): This school ensures the training of future French judges and public prosecutors and the continuous professional training of judges and prosecutors throughout their careers. Judges and prosecutors follow the same training within the same school, since they may be appointed to judicial functions and/or the office of prosecutor during their career (principle of unity of the judiciary).
Judges: They have an active role in the trial: they conduct the hearing and are more than just arbitrators. Unlike prosecutors, they are not submitted to the hierarchical principle and enjoy security of tenure, that is to say that any new assignment requires consent.
Prosecutors: Contrary to sitting judges who are completely independent when they rule on cases, public prosecutors are under the authority of the Minister for Justice, who carries out prosecution policies determined by the Government.
The school is also a central player in the construction of judicial training in Europe, and active throughout the world, building, improving and modernizing training for judges and prosecutors.
The National Registrars College (Ecole nationale des greffes): Its aim is to provide initial training for chief registrars and registrars, as well as officers assigned to various areas. It offers training programs alternating between studies at the college and practical courses in courts.
The National Prison Service College (Ecole nationale de l’administration pénitentiaire) gives prison officers theoretical and practical training before they take up employment. Initial training is provided for wardens, governors, rehabilitation and probation personnel, as well as administrative and technical personnel. Audit and expert assignments abroad are also a priority when contributing to the modernization of foreign prison systems.
The French National Academy for Youth Protection and Juvenile Justice (Ecole nationale de la protection judiciaire de la jeunesse) ensures training for professionals in charge of juvenile justice, legal training and continuing education for youth protection and juvenile public service agents, and multi-institutional courses, available to professionals from other institutions related to child protection.
Access to legal databases in France is provided via the Internet as a free public service, via Légifrance .
Last Updated March 12, 2021