Short Review of the French Justice System for Comparison with that of the UK

Short Review of the French Justice System for comparison with that of the UK


This is a brief overview of the French Justice System as seen solely from an accused person’s point of view. If someone would care to contradict or critique any of these observations, it would be most useful. Most importantly, the purpose of this short document is to show that there are other solutions to similar problems on the other side of the channel – and, indeed, on the other side of the Atlantic, but that’s a topic for another day – and that, when difficult questions are asked of someone, supposedly knowledgeable, who replies “…but we can’t change that”, perhaps this will give a little ammunition beyond simply that supplied by the force of good will.

  1. There is a distinction in the French System between a “contravention”, “délit”, and a “crime”. The first is a minor offence including prostitution, threat of violence and destruction of property and is dealt with at a Police Tribunal. The second covers more serious offences such as theft, fraud and sexual assault and is judged by up to three judges. The third is reserved for the most serious offences such as murder, rape and sexual assault against minors and is judged by a jury of nine including three legal professionals. There is, therefore, a fundamental difference in the treatment of juries.
  2. There exists the role of “Juge d’Application des Peines” who manages the application of any sentence. By this method, overcrowding in prison is reduced and personal circumstances of the accused are taken into account. For example, it is usual that a person aged over seventy will not go to prison but will serve his or her time in a different manner decided by this judge.
  3. A fundamental difference with the UK system is the notion of the “Juge d’Instruction” who actually leads the investigation and is supposed to sit somewhere between prosecution and defence. He determines whether the case has sufficient merit to go to trial and to that extent plays the role of the Crown Prosecution Service. An interrogation by the Juge d’Instruction, despite criticism by that system’s detractors, must be seen as much fairer, detailed and useful than that conducted by any police force. His or her level of education, training and experience surpasses that of the average police officer and, most importantly, their motivation is not to convict but to ascertain the truth.
  4. It is worth also noting the recent expenditure made to improve the French Justice System in terms of infrastructure. Apart from new prisons offering greater levels of dignity, space and activity, it is worth mentioning the Tribunal de Paris – a huge building of 120000 square metres on 38 floors including 3000 square metres of “secure space” – which was recently built in the suburbs of Paris and regroups the activities of more than twenty old tribunals.
  5. As a conclusion, the French system appears to provide a better opportunity for the innocent to present their case, uses less police time (less interrogation), uses less court time (much already covered by the Juge d’Instruction), eases the problem of prison overcrowding, and has even allowed the conversion of many older buildings in Paris to be used for better purposes.

Danny BARRS for PPMI, 23 March, 2024