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Text by Tony TODD

Latest update : 2013-08-09

Dozens – and possibly hundreds – of prisoners could be released from French jails following a June court ruling, which determined that France’s law on the statute of limitations was incorrectly applied from 2004-2012.

France’s Socialist government was facing a huge judicial headache after a report revealed Wednesday that hundreds of prisoners in French jails may have to be released on a technicality.

According to satirical and investigative weekly the Canard Enchainé, the Court of Cassation – France’s last court of appeal in civil and criminal matters – in June 2013 ruled a 2004 government decree on the statute of limitations null and void.

The statute of limitations, called “prescription” in France, sets out the time limit after a crime has been committed during which an offender can still be punished.

In 2004, France’s justice ministry decreed that the ministry, as well as sentencing judges, could decide whether a suspected criminal could still be imprisoned – even if the normal time limit had expired.

The decree also outlined conditions, such as sending out European arrest warrants, which could change or interrupt that period.

But the Court of Cassation ruled that only a law voted by both houses of parliament could change the conditions of the statute of limitations, therefore ruling the 2004 decree null and void.

Law was quietly changed in 2012

According to the Canard Enchainé, the justice ministry realised the mistake in June 2012 and "quietly and without explanation" amended the law.

It remains unclear if the ministry overlooked or deliberately ignored the fate of prisoners who might otherwise have been released.

The updated law is not retrospective – and the ministry of justice admitted late on Tuesday that it had instructed courts to re-examine 3,499 potentially problematic sentences handed down by judges during those eight years.

The ministry also confirmed that since the June ruling, 850 sentences had been reviewed and six people, serving time for offenses including domestic violence, fraud and aggravated robbery, had so far been released.

Dozens more prisoners – if not hundreds, according to Le Canard Enchainé – are likely to be released in the coming months and will undoubtedly go on to claim compensation for arbitrary imprisonment.

Date created : 2013-08-07

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