France’s legal system has a different origin than the of the UK or the US. It began as something divided – there was the king, the nobles, and the Roman Catholic Church. France does not have a common law system. Rather, they have a civil system that is based on the works of the Roman Empire. One of the most important is Emperor Justinian’s Code (i.e. Corpus Juris Civilis) which offered a “systemic view of law that was devoid of church doctrine” (Terrill 149). The removal of the secular aspects allowed the entry of non-clergy members to become part of the judicial process and adapted the form of education. It is also an inquisitorial system. This means that the court is involved with the investigation of the crime.
University education is highly regarded. To enter the legal profession is no easy feat. Law is seen as a science. The texts are to be analyzed and understood. There are no juries for general cases (the exception being Assize), so the magistrates must not only have an excellent understanding of the law but a grasp of general truth. While it appears that the newly graduated magistrates and DAs have no practicable experience “in the field” or the argumentative aspect seen in US and UK courts, there is no need for that in the French system. Rather, there is a lot of responsibility on the court workers to complete the investigation and trail in its entirety as fairly as possible. While there is the concept of innocent until proven guilty, there is no writ of habeas corpus. However the Constitution and the Code of Criminal Procedure does guarantee certain procedural safeguards.
The French have a “system of ‘inquisitorial’ justice” that relies of the ability of the magistrate. In the US and UK system, the police and the prosecution gather the evidence. This is not the case in France. Instead, the investigation is headed by an examining magistrate. They are independent of the government and prosecution. Their job is to discover the truth, and they do this with the police. Trials are done through footwork – and this information is not under public scrutiny. The magistrate interviews witnesses and other intimate work that those of the US and UK system are not privy to. The final report of all the evidence is supposed to be unbiased and contain all information for the prosecution and the defense. While the investigation take time (the average length for a case is two years) the trails themselves are short. This is just one example of the vast differences between the French system and the US/UK one. The magistrates and others have more power and responsibilities than their US/UK counterparts.
Therefore, due to the unusual setup of the French courts, the US or UK system would not work. They must be able to think about the laws differently. Memorization of the law only goes as far. In the search for the truth there is only so much pure logic to be had. That is why discretion is so important. They have an incredible amount of work to do. On the other hand, this ensures that a lot of things so not have to go court. In the French system the truth must also have a universal application – the truth must have the ability to be applied to numerous situations. Law is less a straight rule book and more a system of guidelines that “become a model for social organization” (Terrill 149). While the education system may be different, this does not make it wrong or a poor way of providing justice.
Written by Moria Crowley
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