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Sarkozy ‘playing politics’ with more jury trials, magistrates claim

The use of juries in French criminal courts is to be extended from the beginning of January. Magistrates say that they support the greater use of juries, but claim that there is a strong political motivation behind the decision.


French citizen jurors are to assist in criminal cases punishable by less than ten years’ jail for the first time on Tuesday January 3.

Until now all criminal cases in France for less serious offences have been judged by a trio of professional magistrates without the help of juries.

Citizen panels are only used in trials at Cours d’Assises – higher courts that deal with serious crimes such as murder – where nine jurors assist three investigating judges (12 in appeals cases).

In the experiment due to begin this month in Tribunaux Correctionels (correctional courts) in Toulouse and Dijon, two jurors will sit with three magistrates in cases punishable by five to ten years of jail and involving crimes against the person (such as sexual assault and aggravated burglary).

If the trial proves successful, it will be rolled out to all Tribunaux Correctionels in 2014, as well as to courts that oversee the application of sentences.

Affecting some 40,000 cases a year, the changes will cost the French taxpayer 50 million euros a year, while many in the legal system believe the courts are already chronically underfunded.  

Announcing the introduction of juries in September 2010, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that “justice is handed down in the name of the French people, and so it should be handed down by the French people.”

Political motivation?

In theory, most magistrates approve of the idea of bringing in citizens to help deliver balanced verdicts in a greater number of cases.

But the heads of France’s two main magistrates’ unions told FRANCE 24 on Monday that the experiment was poorly conceived and was likely to slow down an already swamped court system.

They also said they believed the changes have more to do with pre-election politics (presidential and legislative elections are due in May and June 2012) than a genuine desire to improve criminal justice.

Virginie Duval of the Union Syndicale des Magistrats explained that judges and magistrates in France were often lambasted by politicians for passing the “wrong” verdicts, especially in cases that have generated public outrage.

“President Sarkozy has always said that we magistrates are not hard enough on criminals,” she said. “When he launched this bid to bring in more juries it was because he felt it would satisfy public demands for tougher sentences.

“It is a political move. It always suits the government to be critical of the judiciary.”

According to Duval, the biggest problem facing the balance and independence of the French judicial system was that state prosecutors are chosen by politicians, with the result that getting criminals convicted and sentenced became a reflection of political power.

System ‘asphyxiated’

Magistrates, meanwhile, are elected from within the system to act as moderators, judges and juries in the arguments between prosecutors and defence counsel – and are therefore an easy target of angry politicians when they feel that their chosen prosecutors are not getting the desired results.

Matthieu Bonduell, Secretary General of the Syndicat de la Magistrature union, said it was a mistake of the government to believe that civilian jurors would be any more severe than professional magistrates.

“Juries will certainly add an interesting dimension,” he said. “They benefit the citizens and magistrates can gain a lot from points of view that come from outside the system.

“But there is no reason to believe randomly chosen jurors would be less lenient. We already know this from the behaviour of juries in the Cours d’Assises.

But he added that while judgements can be handed down to convicted criminals by teams of magistrates in “15-20 minutes”, with the introduction of juries “this will take much much longer”

“The whole project has been badly conceived, with little thought to the extra time it will take to judge cases in a system that is already asphyxiated and close to overload.

“This is why the majority of magistrates are against a move that, in theory, they support.”

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