In law school, I took a course on comparative law that included the study of the French Civil Law system which differs from the English-based Common Law system we have adopted in most of the United States. I say “most” of the United States because Louisiana – originally settled by the French – follows the Civil Law system, as do some of the Pacific and the Southwestern states, to a minor extent.
Here’s the main difference between the two: Common Law is based predominately on case law, that is, judicial decisions that are treated as law every bit as much as statutory law; Civil Law is based exclusively on legislated codes (the original, in France and Louisiana, being the Code Napoleon) with judges (theoretically) limited to simply applying the codes to the facts. In other words, in the Common Law system, judges can essentially make law; whereas, in the Civil Law system, only legislators make law.
There’s another big difference, at least between the Civil Law system in France and the Common Law system in the U.S., but this one is based on the United States Constitution: in the U.S., we have a right to trial by jury in both criminal and (most) civil cases; but, in France, there is only a right to jury trial in felony criminal cases, those punishable by 10 years or more in prison.
So, I was very excited when a Parisian friend, Laurent Drion (we met through home exchanging) offered to take us to the Palais de Justice on Thursday. I had tried to get into the Court several years ago when we visited Paris with the kids, but tourists are not generally admitted; Thursday, though, we had an escort and I was a visiting attorney from America. Entry allowed; just us! Justice!
That’s la Cour du Mai, the May Courtyard, in the photo, above; it’s the original building from the 1770s, built by King Louis XVI. From these steps, the King’s proclamations were read; today, it’s where they normally film the interviews of the attorneys in high profile cases, so it’s well-known to TV-viewers here in France. This is also the entry that I tried previously to get through, but failed.
We met Laurent in front of the gate to the May Courtyard and he took us around to the other side of the Palais. Along the way, we walked down the Quai des Ofrèvres and this line-up of Police paddy-wagons.
This address is also familiar to TV-viewers in France because every time there’s a notorious arrest, the media says that the suspect “has been taken down to the Quai des Ofrèvres” to the holding cells.
We continued on around the corner to the main entrance for litigants and avocats (attorneys).
Below is the main hallway running along the Cour d’Appel, the appellate court, that you look down after clearing security.
The inside of this courthouse is magnificent. Here are Dale and Laurent in the lobby…
…of the Cour d’Assises, the criminal felony court, the only court that grants trial by jury.
Witnesses waiting to testify are sequestered underneath the stairs to the Cour d’Assises where they have their own internal entrance into the courtroom; you can see it through the window.
Most of the courts are in summer recess for the rest of July and August and the majority of the judges are on holiday. Judges here are specially trained and appointed for life. Currently, 80% of French judges are women; we followed one down the hall…
…to the Cour de Cassation, the Supreme Court of France. Cassation, by the way, means annulment, and that’s what the Cour de Cassation has the power to do: quash lower court decisions, then remand them to sister lower courts (the case is not remanded to the court that it was appealed from).
As you would expect, we weren’t allowed into this courtroom, but the clerks were nice enough to let us in far enough to see the entryway, though no pictures were allowed.
A little further down the hall was the office of the Chief Justice, Messieur le 1st President, a very important guy here. What you see through that door is just the foyer to his chambers. He is, essentially, the head of the third branch of government in France.
From here, we took a quick tour of a couple open courtrooms. This one is used solely for foreclosure auctions (only attorneys can attend and bid):
Here’s a civil trial courtroom (if memory serves me):
And, we were lucky, there was a criminal appeal going on in the next wing, the Chambers Correctionelles – a strong-arm robbery and sexual assault case. You can see the defendant, a black African, standing on the right inside the glass, just behind the gendarme (there are no black judges in France, a controversial topic there).
There are a couple important things to notice in this photo. First, the defendant is sequestered in a see-through box – he is led in and out of the courtroom through a separate access. Second, there are 3 judges – this is the case in appeals and at trial, unlike in the U.S. were trials are always before a single judge. And, third, lawyers, as well as judges, are required to wear robes in court; the seated blond woman is the defense attorney.
There are also a couple things that you don’t see that set the French system apart from ours: to the left, just out of the photo, is the prosecutor, called the magistrat de parquet, who functions as an officer of the court, not as a pure adversary to the defendant; he makes “suggestions” to the judges about what should be done. Another thing is that lawyers are required to stand every time they address the judges (some states in the U.S. have this tradition, too).
I found it all very interesting.
Leaving the Palais, we walked through the Salle des Pas-Perdus, the main lobby.
There were statutes lining the walls. It was huge, beautiful and, I’m sure, intimidating to any litigants, designed, undoubtedly, to instill awe regarding the power of the legal system.
We really enjoyed our tour; and we enjoyed our lunch with Laurent at the Louvre afterward just as much. A great day.