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France: New Law on Participation of Citizens in Functioning of Criminal Justice and Adjudication of Minors

(Oct. 3, 2011) Law 2011-939 of August 10, 2011, on the Participation of Citizens in the Functioning of Criminal Justice and the Adjudication of Minors, was published in France's official gazette of August 11, 2011, after the Constitutional Council validated most of its provisions. (Loi no. 2011-939 du 10 août 2011 sur la participation des citoyens au fonctionnement de la justice pénale et le jugement des mineurs, LEGIFRANCE.)

The constitutionality of certain provisions of the Law had been challenged before the Constitutional Council; in particular, some of the provisions relating to minors. There were concerns that they violated the fundamental principles of juvenile justice: the use of specialized courts, mitigated criminal responsibility due to age, and priority placed on educational rather than law enforcement measures. The Council found four articles of the Law unconstitutional, and those articles were deleted from the Law. (Conseil Constitutionnel, Décision No. 2011-625 (Aug. 4, 2011).)

The main objective of the Law is to associate French citizens with the judging of particular offenses. Some of the provisions of the Law are only applicable in certain parts of France from January 1, 2012, to January 1, 2014, as an experiment. After that time, they will become applicable throughout the entire French territory (Loi 2011-939, art. 54). The citizens will be chosen from a list of citizens registered for voting in the jurisdiction of the competent court, prepared by the mayor of that jurisdiction after a drawing (id. art. 1). The Law includes a provision prohibiting discrimination against the citizens who participate in judging the offenses set forth by the Law or who are jurors (id. art. 9).

French criminal law distinguishes three categories of offenses. In broad terms, crimes are a few very serious offenses such as murder and rape; délits are less serious offenses such as theft, fraud, assault, and involuntary homicide; while the last category, contraventions, include a large range of regulatory offenses often of strict liability. The tribunal de police has jurisdiction over the contraventions, while the tribunal correctionnel deals with the délits. Appeals from judgments of both these tribunals are heard by the chambre des appels correctionnels. The cours d'assises have jurisdiction over crimes. The cour d'assises comprises three judges and several lay jurors.

Two citizens will sit with the three-judge panel in the tribunal correctionnel and the chambre des appels correctionnel to judge violent assaults on persons punishable by five to ten years of imprisonment. They will participate in the determination of the qualification of the facts, the culpability of the defendant, and the sentence (Loi no. 2011-939, arts. 1, 5). In the cours d'assises, the Law decreases the number of jurors from nine to six in the first instance and from twelve to nine in appeals cases. The jury and a three-judge panel deliberate together. Defendants must be found guilty by at least a majority of six votes in the first instance and eight in appeals. The aim of this measure is to expedite the judgment of these cases (id. art. 13).

Another objective of the Law is to improve the efficiency of the judgment procedure concerning minors. A tribunal correctionnel to judge minors 16 years old and above who are repeat offenders has been created. In addition to two professional judges, it will include a juvenile judge (id. art. 25). The Law also institutes the compilation of a single personality file for each juvenile delinquent that will include all the information gathered through various criminal investigations and procedures (id. art. 28).

Finally, in the chambers of appeals or tribunals in charge of the implementation of sentences, two citizens will sit with the three judges to examine parole requests or their revocation, for all sentences above five years of imprisonment (id. art. 15).