short guide to the law and legal system in France
Most recent page update; May 2013
1. The nature of legal systems
Unlike English-speaking countries, which use a system of "Common Law", France
has a system of "Civil law".
Common law systems are ones that have evolved over
ages, and are largely based on consensus and precedent. Civil law
systems are largely based on a Code of Law. Worldwide, Common
forms the basis of the law in most English-speaking countries, whereas
Civil law systems prevail in most of the rest of the world, with the
notable exception of many Islamic nations and China.
In line with the democratic principle of the separation of
powers, the French judiciary - although its members are state employees
- is independent of the legislative authority (government).
The origins of the French
The basis of the French legal system is laid out in a key document
originally drawn up in 1804, and known as the Code Civil,
(Civil code or Napoleonic code) which laid down the rights and
obligations of citizens, and the laws of property, contract,
inheritance, etc.. Essentially, it was an adaptation to the needs of
nineteenth-century France of the principles of Roman law and customary
law. The Code Civil remains
the cornerstone of French law to this day, though it has been updated
and extended many times to take account of changing society. There are
other codes, including notably the Code
Pénal, or Penal code, which defines criminal
The making of law
Laws in France, as in other democratic countries, are generally
proposed by the Government of the day, and must be passed by the two
houses of the French Parliment, the National Assembly and the
Senate. They become law as from the date on which they have
passed by Parliament, signed into law by the President, and published
in the Journal Officiel,
or Official Journal. Statutory instruments (décrets, ordonnances)
become law on signing by the minister(s), and being
published in the Journal
Officiel. Publication in the electronic version of the
J.O. is sufficient.
The two branches of French law
the English-speaking countries, France has a dual legal system;
one branch, known as Droit
or Public law, defines the principles of operation of the
and public bodies. This law is applied generally through public law
courts, known as les Tribunaux administratifs. The other system, known
privé, or private law, applies to private
individuals and private bodies.
Private law - le droit
This is the basic law of the land. It is administered through the
There are two judicial channels, a) those dealing with civil litigation,
and b) those dealing with criminal
a) Basic civil litigation
concerning private individuals is dealt with by a local court, known as
a Tribunal d'Instance,
or by a regional or departmental court known as a Tribunal de Grande Instance (TGI),
depending on the importance of the case. Commercial and business law is
administered through institutions known as Tribunaux de commerce.
These are known as "first degree courts".
are heard in a Cour
Court of Appeal, a "second degree court". In France, there is a
fundamental right of appeal in all cases. In exceptional circumstances,
judgements of the Appeal Court can be contested at the highest
level, the Cour
de Cassation, the French Supreme Court in matters
of private law.
b) Everyday offences and petty criminal matters are generally dealt
with either by a Juge
de proximité (a local magistrate) or a Tribunal
(police court); more serious matters will be referred to the Tribunal
criminal law equivalent of the TGI. The most serious criminal offences,
notably murder and rape, will be referred to a Cour d'Assises, or
Assize court, where
they will tried by jury.
Public law - le droit
Complaints or litigation concerning public officials in the exercise of
their office are heard in Tribunaux
Administrative Courts. For example, universities or public academic
institutions are regularly taken to court over claimed irregularities
in the organisation of exams. As in the private law system, appeals can
be lodged, in this case with the Cour
administratif d'appel, or Administrative appeals court.
The highest echelon, the Supreme Court for public law, is the Conseil
Council of State, the body ultimately
responsible for determining the legality of administrative measures.
How the courts operate in
French courts are presided over by Juges
(Judges) also known as Magistrats
are highly qualified professionals, almost all of whom have graduated
from the postgraduate School of Magistrature; they are high-ranking
. In other words, a French Magistrat
is not at all the same as a Magistrate in the English legal system.
Criminal court proceedings can be
overseen by a juge
The judge who is appointed to the case is in charge of preparing the
case and assessing whether it should come to court. In legal jargon,
this system is known as inquisitorial,
as opposed to the adversarial
system used in Common Law legal systems.
In court, the judge or judges arbirate between the
prosecution and the defence, both of which are generally represented by
their lawyers, or avocats.
The French judicial system does not have recourse to juries except in
If the case goes to appeal, the arguments of the
prosecution and the defence are taken over by appeals
known as Avoués.
In 2008, President Sarkozy announced plans to further reform and
streamline the French judiciary. Among the reforms are plans to reduce
the number of courts, move court procedures towards a more
adversarial system, and to get rid of the system of avoués
courts of appeal. This change has not yet been implemented.
One reform recently tried out in a couple
(criminal courts) was the introduction of
trial by jury, previously limited to the assize courts. Juries in this
case were made up of six members of the public, and three magistrates.
But in 2013, the socialist administration of François
decided to scrap this reform, claiming the process was expensive,
slowed down the judicial procedure, and did not produce any significant
change in results.
Getting a lawyer in France
If you wish to take legal action against someone or against an
institution, if someone is taking legal action against you (civil
litigation), or if criminal charges have been brought against you (for
example for reckless driving), you may need to find a lawyer (trouver un avocat)..
The consular services of the British,
United States and other embassies in Paris, and consulates in other
cities, can often point you in the direction of an English-speaking
lawyer. There are a number of English-speaking lawyers practicing in
France, including British and American lawyers, qualified to practise
as lawyers in France; though they are not to be found in every town or
city, far from it. To find one, check the local yellow pages, or
contact the local Tribunal d'Instance.
Alternatively, contact a local French lawyer
specialising in the appropriate field of law : family law, inheritance
law, property law, etc. In the end, proximity and competence are
usually more important than having an English-speaking lawyer; after
all, your lawyer will be pleading in a French court. And many French
lawyers do have a basic ability to speak English.
the situation is easier, and there are growing numbers of international
corporate law firms, including some very big ones, established in
Paris, Lyon, Toulouse and other big cities. For details contact the
local consulate, the Tribunal de commerce, or the Chamber of Commerce.
The Franco-British chamber of commerce has a list
of a number of international business law firms in France.
Legal aid is easier to obtain, and cheaper, in France than in many
other countries. A useful first port of call for anyone wanting legal
aid is the Maison de
Justice, usually attached to the local Tribunal d'Instance.
contributions from Dr. Audrey Guinchard, Dept. of Law, University of