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Justice Minister Alliot-Marie defends controversial criminal procedure reform

Text by FRANCE 24 (with wires)

Latest update : 2010-03-02

French Justice Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie is defending a controversial reform of France's criminal procedure, which would include scrapping the country's longstanding tradition of investigating magistrates.

French Justice Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, who on Tuesday begins a period of consultation on the controversial criminal procedure reform, has defended a proposal to scrap investigating magistrates.

Under French law, investigating magistrates are judges that carry out investigations into complex cases of severe crimes. Independent from the Ministry of Justice, the investigating magistrates are supposed to be able to conduct impartial investigations, collect evidence to present to court officials, and bring charges without fear of political interference. Only five percent of investigations in France are led by an investigating magistrate.

But criticism of the system has intensified since the “Outreaux affair” in 2004, in which a poorly led investigation by a young investigating judge was blamed for the conviction of several people who turned out to be innocent of the paedophilia charges levelled against them.

In an interview with French publication Le Parisien-Aujourd’hui, Alliot-Marie said: “To refuse the reform or call to keep investigating magistrates only to render them ineffective would make no sense. On the other hand, observations and propositions will be taken into account.”

The elimination of investigating magistrates has been sought by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, though Alliot-Marie has said that cutting the position was not the sole purpose of the reform.

Rather, she has called the 225-page reform proposal, which will be read and discussed by unions of magistrates, lawyers, police officers, and victims’ associations, a “complete overhaul of criminal procedure”.

Opponents of the reform have portrayed it as a takeover of the justice system that would result in the prosecution alone being responsible for investigations. Since the prosecutor is not independent and receives orders directly from the Ministry of Justice, critics have said problems would arise in the case of a politically sensitive investigation.

In the interview withe Le Parisien, Alliot-Marie tried to assuage those fears. "The Ministry of Justice will not be able to prevent the opening of an investigation, and if it did, the prosecution would be obligated to disobey: this will be written into the law,” she said. “If the prosecution does not open an investigation, the plaintiff will have the right to request one.” This request would be filed to a judge whose role would be to oversee the prosecution’s investigation and to ensure its fairness.

Another key aspect of the reform would be to reduce the use of police custody, which has spiked this year, and to reinforce the presence of defence lawyers for those being questioned while in custody.

Date created : 2010-03-02