Speculation Paris is planning major justice reform

Nicolas Sarkozy is to overhaul the manner in which criminal investigations are conducted, newspaper Le Monde has reported. The speculation has incited fears the justice system will become exposed to political influence.


REUTERS - French President Nicolas Sarkozy is planning to scrap the position of examining magistrate, one of the great symbolic figures of the French justice system, in a major overhaul after recent abuses, Le Monde said on Tuesday.

The newspaper said all criminal investigations would now be handled by public prosecutors, who answer to the justice ministry, causing concern among magistrates who said this could expose the criminal justice system to political influence.

Sarkozy's office confirmed that he would make a keynote speech to judges on Wednesday but declined to give details.

The change would be in line with recommendations made after the 2000 Outreau child abuse scandal, in which more than a dozen people were wrongfully imprisoned after a flawed investigation by a young and inexperienced magistrate.

The case was widely viewed as one of the worst miscarriages of justice in France since the end of World War Two.

The all-powerful independent examining magistrate, in charge of complex criminal cases, is a familiar figure from media and fictional coverage of a series of political corruption scandals but has been used more sparingly in recent years.

According to Le Monde, examining magistrates are currently responsible for less than 5 percent of criminal cases. Under the reform, investigations would be handed over to state prosecutors who already handle most criminal cases in France.

"This is revenge by politicians against positive actions taken by examining magistrates in the 1980s and 1990s in corruption cases," said Christophe Regnard, president of the main magistrates' union, the USM.

Emmanuelle Perreux, head of the left-leaning magistrates' organisation SM, also criticised the plan.

"It's the death of an independent justice system because the prosecutors are under government control. This is a vendetta against economic and financial justice," she said.

Examining magistrates were behind a series of sensitive examinations that dogged the late Socialist president, Francois Mitterrand, and his right-wing successor Jacques Chirac for years. The retired Chirac is still facing procedures now.

The independent magistrates were also behind a series of criminal cases against major French companies and their senior executives, notably in a huge 1990s scandal centred on the oil company Elf.

In 2006, a parliamentary committee urged a series of reforms to the criminal justice system in the wake of the Outreau case.

The proposals included strengthening defendants' rights, separating the roles of investigating magistrates and judges, and replacing single magistrates with teams of three.

Le Monde said the changes to be proposed by Sarkozy would include stronger rights for defendants, but they would not make the prosecutors' office independent of the justice ministry.

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