Explain the French legal system to me!
May 10, 2013 8:06 AM   Subscribe

So SO and I are watching the first season of Spiral (Engrenages) and there's something about the procedural process that confuses me - suspects are brought in, and then soon after meet with a 'Judge' who decides a sentence - but unlike UK or US shows, this is done in a private office, not a courtroom. Can someone explain this to us? (No spoilers, if you know about French justice but not the programme!)

In the first episode we saw a case take place in a courtroom with defence counsel, judge, and everything else that is familiar from police/courtroom dramas I've seen in the UK and US. However, in the second, a woman was arrested for a crime, brought into the station, and then appeared to be taken to the office of a man with the title 'Judge' (I don't know if this is equivalent to the same office in Anglophone countries). The Judge heard the woman's confession, looked at a report, and gave a verdict - but only the suspect, a detective and the Judge were present. No trial by jury, no public hearing.

Is this a common way to resolve criminal cases in France, or is this just how it has been written for dramatic purposes? (After all, we don't see the officers in UK police procedurals filling out paperwork...) The crime was a serious one, which is why it seemed odd to me that a decision was made pretty much privately and by one individual.
posted by mippy to Law & Government (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Could this have been the equivalent of the allocution hearing following a plea-bargain? A plea-bargain in the US (not sure where and where not) may require an allocution, a descriptive confession of the criminal act, in order to satisfy the plea agreement. Once the requirement is satisfied, the judge can approve the deal and sentence the convict accordingly.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:18 AM on May 10, 2013

No trial by jury

France holds jury trials only in serious criminal cases (e.g. murder, rape) heard before a cour d'assises. This is typical of civil law countries (i.e. pretty much everywhere that isn't the UK or a former colony, or an Islamic country), which typically either rarely have jury trials or do not have them at all.

But even in the US (and I assume the UK) one may waive one's right to a jury trial. If someone was arrested, confessed, and plead guilty in the US they wouldn't get a jury trial either.
posted by jedicus at 8:20 AM on May 10, 2013

Response by poster: jedicus - that makes sense, but there did not appear to be a panel of judges - just one judge in an office, the suspect, and what I think was a detective - at the end of the conversation the judge decided the verdict should be X instead of the Y the detective wanted. This was the part that confused me - they seem to have decided the crime and the suspect's culpability only from a private meeting.

The suspect did confess but there was doubt as to whether they were considered to be sane or not, if that makes a difference.
posted by mippy at 8:37 AM on May 10, 2013

The Judge heard the woman's confession, looked at a report, and gave a verdict - but only the suspect, a detective and the Judge were present. No trial by jury, no public hearing.

A couple of clarifications here - it wasn't a verdict, not like guilty or not guilty, but a decision on whether the person was fit for trial. Also, I don't think the other person in the room was a detective, but a lawyer of some description.

I think we do still need some help, though. I mean, that guy says he's a judge, but he wasn't even wearing a stupid wig! Total anarchy.
posted by liquidindian at 8:48 AM on May 10, 2013

I looked into this when I was watching Spiral. France uses an Inquisitorial legal system, while the US, UK etc use an Adversarial system. Their judges are much more involved with the discovery.

Not a spoiler, but in future you'll see the same judge visit a crime scene and ask a bunch of pointed questions of the suspect and alleged victim. This was VERY confusing to me but apparently it's de rigeur there. I've read that this show is considered to be extremely accurate by law enforcement there.

You will love watching this show, it gets more and more interesting.

Also, I don't think the other person in the room was a detective, but a lawyer of some description.

That was probably Pierre, who is a prosecutor but also assists in the investigation (reference the Inquisitorial legal system mentioned above). The redhead, Josephine, is the defense attorney.
posted by desjardins at 9:01 AM on May 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

The judge in question is a specificity of the French system. He is called 'Juge d'Instruction', or 'Examining magistrate'. Normally, a prosecutor directs the police enquiries and estimate if pursuing the case is in the public interest. A JDI does the same job, but has very enlarged powers, and will take over the enquiry when requested by the chief prosecutor or a victim. The JDI reports to no one, so is often called upon when the enquiries must be free of political pressure. He has the power to request preventive detention of suspects and inform them that they are formally under investigation, which is probably what you saw in the episode.

(I am not a lawyer, so the accuracy of the previous statements may be relative).
posted by Spanner Nic at 9:15 AM on May 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

I love this show and some aspects of the French legal system were confusing to me too so I'm glad you asked this question.

Also, check out Braquo, which reminds me of The Shield with a confusing French legal system thrown in. It's also excellent.
posted by shoesietart at 9:48 AM on May 10, 2013

Another thing to google: Napoleonic Code. Trivia: Louisiana has a version of it.
posted by gjc at 8:03 PM on May 10, 2013

Is it the scene with the black woman (25-27 min)? The judge, as noted above, is a juge d'instruction. The other man in the room, however, is not a detective (and not the Pierre character) but her lawyer (as shown by the traditional court dress and white tie), probably court-appointed. The lawyer claims that his client is "completely nuts" but the judge is not convinced and requires a counter-expertise. It's not a verdict: instead of accepting immediately the claim of mental disability (the woman would then be commited to a mental hospital), the judge requires a second medical opinion to assess whether or not the accused is responsible for her actions. If she is indeed found responsible, the case will go to trial.
posted by elgilito at 11:55 AM on May 11, 2013

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