(Aug. 7, 2020) On July 21, 2020, the French Senate adopted a bill that aims to better protect victims of domestic violence. The National Assembly had adopted the same text on July 16, 2020. The bill was signed into law on July 30, 2020.
This new law contains several measures aimed at detecting and fighting domestic violence. One of the most significant measures is the creation of an exception to the rules of medical confidentiality. Under the new law, doctors or other medical professionals who find that the lives of patients are in immediate danger due to domestic abuse, and that the patients are not able to protect themselves due to the abuser’s psychological control over them, will not be in violation of medical confidentiality if they inform a prosecutor’s office of the situation. Medical professionals should try to obtain the victim’s consent if possible, but if this is impossible, they should tell the victim that they have informed the prosecutor’s office.
This new law also introduces the use of distancing bracelets: a violent spouse or partner may be required to wear a geolocation bracelet that automatically alerts the victim if the wearer comes within a perimeter set by a judge. The French minister of justice has indicated that these bracelets will become available for use in September 2020.
Additionally, the law introduces new provisions in the Penal Code to prevent abusive spouses or partners from using geolocation devices to know their victims’ whereabouts. These new provisions make it illegal for anyone to record or transmit another person’s geolocation information without that person’s consent. Additionally, the theft of a communication device by a spouse or partner is now a prosecutable offense.
Other new measures introduced by the new law include the suspension of parents’ custody and visitation rights over their children when those parents are charged with abusing their partner. Harassment of a spouse or partner, which was already punishable by up to five years in jail and a fine of 75,000 euros (about US$88,850) if it rendered the victim incapacitated for work or was done in the presence of a minor, will now be punished by up to 10 years in jail and a fine of 150,000 euros if the harassment caused the victim to commit or attempt suicide. Law enforcement authorities may now seize any weapons in the possession of a person under investigation for domestic violence. The new law also does away with mediation procedures in divorces of couples where one of the spouses was abusive.
Additionally, this new law increases the penalty for recording or sharing child pornography from two years in jail and a fine of 30,000 euros (about US$35,500) to five years in jail and a fine of 75,000 euros. It also reinforces the obligation for producers and distributors of legal pornography to prevent minors from accessing their work, as they can now be criminally liable if minors gain access to pornographic material by simply declaring that they are 18 or older.
The bill in its final drafting was supported across the political spectrum and was unanimously adopted by the Senate. However, while its adoption was generally welcomed by advocacy groups, many criticize the government for failing to provide sufficient means to apply the new measures. Indeed, some critics estimate that up to 80% of charges for domestic abuse are dropped before trial. Even in the cases that do go to trial, there can be a delay of several months between when a victim first approaches the police and when the abuser is tried in court. Critics therefore fear that, without additional means and training for law enforcement and the court system, these newly adopted measures will remain mostly symbolic. Furthermore, the new measure allowing medical professionals to alert law enforcement authorities if they feel a patient is in grave danger, even without the patient’s consent, has been criticized by some as being overly paternalistic and as potentially causing negative unforeseen consequences, such as more hesitation on the part of victims of domestic abuse to seek medical care.