Syracuse Injury Lawyer Visits French Courtroom and Is Impressed!

I recently flew across the Great Pond to France. I’m no stranger there. I lived there for five years in my 20’s.  So my French ain’t bad.  I also have three daughters and four grandchildren over there.  Here we are having some fun:

While in Toulouse, my French son-in-law and father of two of my grandchildren, Fabrice, took me to a Court called the “Tribunal d’Instance”.  There’s no exact translation for this since the justice system is so different over there.  Mostly this Court processed what we would call misdemeanors and low-level felonies.   Fabrice and I sat through four legal proceedings in one afternoon for about 5 hours.

Here’s a picture of the courthouse:

Fabrice is an engineer, but with a keen interest in politics and justice.  He’s taking advantage of his paternity leave to sneak in a few hours a week to bear witness to the French justice system.   (I think he sometimes regrets having chosen engineering rather than law as a career path.)  I gladly tagged along with Frabrice.  (He also tried to take me to a “black metal” concert, but I turned him down).  Here’s a picture of Fabrice, me and our little Tom jamming in Toulouse (not black metal!):

As a New York personal injury lawyer, what was most interesting to me was how the French court meted out criminal and civil justice all in one proceeding.  Very efficient!  In New York, it would have taken two separate proceedings, with two sets of lawyers and judges, and several days (because jury trials are more complicated) to accomplish what they accomplished over there in just a few hours.  There are no juries in France except for major crimes (minimum sentence 10 years in prison).

These were all relatively minor crimes.  The maximum penalty I saw imposed was 18 months. The three-judge panel not only decided guilt or innocence, but also determined sentencing and, if there was what we would call a “plaintiff” or “victim” in Court, the judges would decide compensation for him or her as well.  All in one procedure!

There were some striking visual differences between a US courtroom and this French one. No jury seats (because no jury).  Longer bench (because more judges).  There were three judges instead of just one.  The garb was strikingly different, too.  The prosecutor looked and dressed just like the judges (same black robe and white frill or scarves).  In fact, even the defense lawyers were dressed in the same kind of back robe.

I could sometimes glimpse the underlying garments:  Jeans and sneakers.  Pretty cool to be a courtroom lawyer and not have to worry about a suit.  Just go to work in your jeans and throw on the black cloak before entering the courtroom.

Here’s a photo of a French courtroom similar to the one I was in:

Notice how the judges and lawyers dress alike.  If a lawyer hopped over the bench and sat down, would anyone notice he wasn’t a judge?

The sequence of presentation for each case did not vary:  The chief judge, sitting up on the bench with an associate judge on each side (like in the photo), would present the “dossier” or the facts of the case, which apparently had been gathered by the prosecutor (Judge D’Instance), who in France acts as an investigator and a prosecutor.  This same Judge D’Instance (prosecutor) sits on the bench just to the judges’ right, and dressed exactly like a judge, and in fact is a kind of “judge” (the name says it all — “JUDGE d’Instance”).  This “prosecuting judge” invariably argued for a finding of guilty and recommended a penalty to be imposed.  Then the defense attorney, probably assigned counsel, who was also dressed like a judge (same kind of robe and frills), argued from the courtroom floor on behalf of the accused, mostly based on attenuating circumstances (because guilt was pretty obvious) for a lesser penalty.  Finally the plaintiff’s/victim’s lawyer would have her say, standing next to her clients, arguing for victim compensation (which by our standards was very modest).

After all this, the chief judge would call a recess, and all would rise as the judges left.  They would then leave the courtroom to discuss and decide the case.  This usually took about 20 minutes.  When they came back, the Court marshal would say, “all rise”, and the chief judge, followed by her associate judges, would take their seats.  The chief judge would then read their decision.

In each of the four cases I witnessed, the finding was “guilty”.  The sentence was never more than 18 months, often “avec sursis”, meaning that part or all of the sentence would be “suspended” or would not go into effect if the defendant stayed out of legal trouble for a period of time afterwards.  (This seemed a lot like what we call “probation”).

The cases I witnessed were of the garden variety of petty thuggery, fraud, theft and harassment.

One was a gypsy who was involved in man to man combat outside a hotel.  The fight was about a woman.  Voila!  Cherchez la femme! The surveillance video had caught most of the action.   Although the video seemed to show the defendant merely defending himself from an assault, his legal jeopardy was that he just happened to have a knife on him, which he unleashed during the brawl.  His opponent, on the other hand, was knife-less.  The defendant’s rap sheet was long — 24 prior convictions –  which probably explains his deft knife wielding skills. (I doubt he obtained those skills by merely cutting Camembert cheese wedges.)  Although our gypsy friend had the advantage in the fight, the same cannot be said of him in court.   The problem was that he was already on probation for past crimes and one of the conditions of his probation was – you guessed it – he could not carry any weapons.  So essentially he was being tried for violating his probation terms. His “victim” did not show up in Court to claim compensation.  I assume this was because said “victim” was no friend of the judicial system and/or he actually enjoyed sporting the new facial scars our gypsy friend had gifted him;  more street cred with his fellow thugs.

Another case involved a Polish guy who, while on business in Toulouse, got really drunk and sexually harassed the housekeeper at his hotel.  He chased her around and grabbed her behind and breasts. There were so many witnesses – including his own employees – that he could not deny having done the deed.  Instead, his defense was that he was so drunk he was “not himself”.  He claimed to have no memory of doing it.  Unfortunately for him, as his lawyer pointed out, being so shitfaced you don’t know what you are doing used to be a defense to this sort of thing in France, but no longer.  The housekeeper was in Court with her husband and lawyer asking for compensation.  Her lawyer pointed out that she was so distraught by the event that her doctor had ordered her out of work for several days.

This case was a kind of low-class remake of the famous New York v. Stauss-Kahn  case of a few years ago.  Do you recall that case?  Dominique Strauss-Kahn was a famous French politician  on track to become France’s next prime minister when a New York district attorney’s office charged him with sexually assaulting his hotel housekeeper.   Investigators found Strauss-Kahn’s semen on the housekeeper’s clothing, so the only available defense was consent. The defense ran with it and eventually poked major major holes in the housekeeper’s credibility so that charges were dismissed, but the case nevertheless destroyed Strauss-Kahn’s political career.   (As in the USA, in France there are two parallel systems of justice for the rich and powerful, one in the court of law and the other in the court of public opinion.)  Unlike Strauss-Kahn, however, this Polish guy did not have a top notch law team to poke holes in the credibility of the five witnesses – some of them his friends — who all saw him chase the screeming housekeeper down the hotel corridor and into a bedroom.

Strauss-Kahn and his accuser.

Then there was a young Iranian woman who had bought and used a forged German passport (her name and photo superimposed) to try to leave Iran for Great Britain via France.  Her explanation of how she ended up with the falsified German passport (“my father obtained it for me”) and why she had made quick layover stops in Germany, Spain and then France before trying to board for England, was suspect.  The prosecutor herself seemed baffled by defendant’s strange itinerary, and insinuated that something crooked must have been at the root of it.  My thinking was she was trying to look like a tourist so that the British authorities would not suspect her trying to illegally immigrate. Her punishment?  I seem to recall she was simply deported with a warning not to re-enter France and that if she did so her penalty would be much more serious.

Then there were two guys, co-defendants, charged with stealing a car but who claimed they did not really “steal” it.  They were just using it for sleeping quarters. (They were homeless).  How they got the keys to the car was disputed.  The owner of the car showed up in court as a plaintiff and demanded, through her lawyer, some compensation. She had been without a vehicle for several days and had to pay for taxis to get to work.

Every one of the defendants was convicted and sentenced right there on the spot.  If there was a plaintiff-victim in the courtroom, the defendant was also ordered to pay compensation.

I was greatly impressed by how the judges paid attention not just to the crime, but to the “attenuating circumstances”.  Each case started with a long recitation by the chief judge of the “facts” of the case, which the Judge D’Instance (prosecutor) had gathered from the police and witnesses.  But the chief judge did not stop there.  The judge also summarized the “rap sheet” (criminal history) of the defendant.  The Court would take into account the criminal past in deciding the sentence.  But importantly, the judge also summarized the facts of defendant’s childhood, even if the defendant was quite old.  Most of the defendants were the products of poverty and split homes.  For example, one defendant’s mother had been assassinated when he was eight years old.  All this would be considered in deciding the sentence.

All in all I found the French system very efficient and fair.  The oral arguments by the prosecutor and the defense attorneys were vigorous and sometimes passionate.  They argued without referring to notes. No time limits were imposed.  The judges, especially the chief judge, seemed to listen intently to both sides, and sometimes asked questions.  The judges would recess for at least 20 minutes before coming back with their verdict, sentence, and if a plaintiff was in court, compensation.

There are two aspects of the French system I don’t like, but I admit this is due to my American bias and that the French system is arguable just as good or better.

First, there are no juries (except for major crimes).  Judges are appointed, not elected, in France.  It is a high class of judicially trained experts, which is good, but the “people” have no say in the justice system.  In the USA the “people” get direct input by their participation on juries.

Second, there is no REAL compensation for victims.  The amount of money the plaintiffs’ lawyers were allowed to ask for was puny.  There is no concept of true “pain and suffering” compensation.  The compensation is very limited by law. I believe it is based on compensation tables established by judges or regulators.

Bottom line, I won’t be moving to France to take the French bar exam anytime soon.  But I appreciate their judicial system and feel privileged to have witnesses the French system mete out justice.  Merci Fabrice!

Keep safe!

Mike Bersani

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Syracuse NY Personal Injury Lawyers
Michaels Bersani Kalabanka


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