Legal System

Laws and courts in France

The French legal system is based entirely on written civil law. The system of administrative law was laid down by Napoleon and is appropriately called the code Napoléon (Napoleonic code). The code governs all branches of French law and includes the code civil, the code fiscal and the code pénal.

It’s regularly updated (e.g. in 1994 a new criminal code was introduced, including clauses on sexual harassment, ecological terrorism, crimes against humanity and maximum jail sentences, which are 30 years). France has two judicial systems: administrative and judiciary. The administrative system deals with disputes between the government and individuals, while the judiciary handles civil and criminal cases. France doesn’t have a jury system (abolished in 1941) but a mixed tribunal made up of six lay judges and three professional judges, with convictions decided by a two-thirds majority. However, in the cour d’assises (see below), nine ordinary citizens make up a jury populaire.

Under the French criminal law system, cases are heard by a variety of courts, depending on the severity of the alleged offence. Civil courts include a tribunal d’instance (for small claims, up to around €5,000), a tribunal de commerce (for commercial disputes), a tribunal de sécurité sociale (for disputes over social security payments), a tribunal de grande instance (for cases relating to divorce and adoption, etc. as well as some criminal cases) and a conseil de prud’hommes (an arbitration service for labour disputes). Criminal courts include a tribunal de police (for minor contraventions such as parking fines), a tribunal correctionnel (for more serious offences), a cour d’assises (for major cases) and a cours d’appel (for appeals; the supreme appeal court is the Cour de Cassation). A new kind of judge called a juge de proximité, created in September 2002, can deal with claims worth up to €1,500.

Employing a lawyer in France

It’s unnecessary to employ a lawyer or barrister ( avocat – also the word for avocado pear) in a civil case heard in a tribunal d’instance, where you can conduct your own case (if your French is up to the task). If you use a lawyer, not surprisingly, you must pay his fee. In a tribunal de grande instance you must employ a lawyer. An avocat can act for you in almost any court of law. A legal and fiscal adviser ( conseil juridique et fiscal) is similar to a British solicitor and can provide legal advice and assistance on commercial, civil and criminal matters, as well as on tax, social security, labour law and similar matters.

He can also represent you before certain administrative agencies and in some courts. A bailiff ( huissier) deals with summonses, statements, writs and lawsuits, in addition to the lawful seizure of property ordered by a court. He’s also employed to officially notify documents and produce certified reports ( constats) for possible subsequent use in legal proceedings, e.g. statements from motorists after a road accident.

Public notaries in France

A public notary ( notaire, addressed as Maître) is a public official authorised by the Ministry of Justice and controlled by the Chambre des Notaires. Like a conseil juridique he’s also similar to a British solicitor, although he doesn’t deal with criminal cases or offer advice concerning criminal law. Notaires have a monopoly in the areas of transferring property, testamentary and matrimonial acts, which by law must be in the form of an authentic document ( acte authentique), verified and stamped by a notaire. In France, property conveyance is strictly governed by French law and can be performed only by a notaire. A notaire also informs and advises about questions relating to administrative, business, company, credit, family, fiscal and private law.

In respect to private law, a notaire is responsible for administering and preparing documents relating to leases, property sales and purchases, divorce, inheritance, wills, loans, setting up companies, and buying and selling businesses. He guarantees the validity and safety of contracts and deeds, and is responsible for holding deposits on behalf of clients, collecting taxes and paying them to the relevant authorities. Notaires’ fees are fixed by the government and therefore don’t vary from one notaire to another (i.e. they’re invariably astronomical!).

Never assume that the law in France is the same as in any other country, as this often isn’t the case. If you need an English-speaking lawyer, you can usually obtain a list of names from your country’s embassy or a local consulate in France. Certain legal advice and services may also be provided by embassies and consulates in France, including an official witness of signatures (Commissioner for Oaths). French residents have the right to a free consultation with a lawyer; ask at your local Tribunal de Grande Instance for times. Legal aid ( aide juridictionnelle) is available to EU citizens and regular visitors to France on low incomes.

Anyone charged with a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the accused has the right to silence. All suspects are entitled to see a lawyer within three hours of their arrest, a person under judicial investigation must be notified in writing, and an examining magistrate may not remand suspects in custody in a case he’s investigating. Under France’s inquisitorial system of justice, suspects are questioned by an independent examining magistrate ( juge d’instruction). Other types of judge include juges du siège (arbitration judges) and juges d’instance (presiding judges).

Under French law, you’re required to retain certain documents for a minimum period, which varies from six months to life. For example:

  • Six Months – Hotel and restaurant bills.
  • One Year – Receipts for chimney sweeping; telephone bills; huissier’s fees; removal bills; children’s school attendance records ( certificats de scolarité); proof of payment of fines.
  • Two Years – Insurance receipts and cancellation letters; receipts for professional fees; standing order instructions and bank deposit slips; employment contracts; credit notes; water bills; bills for electric appliances and clothing; social security and complementary insurance refunds; property tax demands; receipts for family allowance payments.
  • Three Years – TV licence demands; currency exchange receipts.
  • Four Years – Income and wealth tax bills and proofs of payment.
  • Five Years – Life insurance receipts; pay slips other than salary statements; unemployment payment slips; divorce settlements; electricity and gas bills; rental charges and payment receipts; proof of payments to notaires; social security contribution records; receipts for non-salary income.
  • Six Years – Letters of dismissal; income tax demands and returns plus supporting paperwork.
  • Ten Years – House and car insurance contracts; mortgage contracts; business account cheque stubs and bank statements; self-employment records; receipts for co-ownership charges; credit notes relating to property ownership or rental; receipts for repairs by a shop or for building work; invoices from private clinics; documents relating to a community property; estate agent’s bills.
  • Eighteen Years – School reports; children’s health records (for their first 18 years).
  • Thirty Years – Building permits; architects’ and builders’ contracts; bills for building work; personal bank statements; loan and debt records; official papers relating to self-employment.
  • Life – Identity cards and residence permits; marriage and divorce certificates; education certificates; life insurance contracts; receipts for legal fees; salary statements; building and other work guarantees; unemployment registration; marriage contracts and divorce papers; co-ownership agreements; bills for valuables; records relating to gifts; education certificates; medical records and certificates; hospital bills; local tax bills; savings account books; livret de famille; pension payment receipts and other documents.

Product guarantees and receipts should be kept for as long as you have the products, and rental agreements until the end of the rental period.

There are many books explaining the intricacies of French law, including Un An de Chronique Juridique and Le Guide Juridique, both published by VO Editions and Principles of French Law (OUP).

This article is an extract from Living and working in France. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

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