Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This article is a feedback on attending court hearings. It isn’t impossible that this article contains some errors in vocabulary or on the functioning of the court. If this is the case, please feel free to correct them in a commentary.
Why attend court hearings?
When I was in high school, a teacher brought our class to attend hearings at the Tours court. I had found it exciting and it triggered a certain fascination for the judicial life and especially for the lawyers whose eloquence always impressed me.
Attending a hearing also means trying to better understand our judicial system and fulfill a role as a citizen: to monitor the proper functioning of justice in our country.
Passing through Paris with a little bit of free time, I take the opportunity to spend some time at the new court in Paris. I spent about 4 hours there spread over two days.
Where is the new courthouse in Paris?
After several centuries on the Ile de la Cité, the Paris courthouse has recently moved: in April 2018.
The new courthouse is now located in the 17th arrondissement, Batignolles district.
To get there, the easiest way is to take the metro (line 13, argh…) to Porte de Clichy, the courthouse is a few minutes walk away.
Far from historic Paris, the new courthouse is an ultra-modern building: 160 meters high (2nd highest building in Paris after the Montparnasse tower), 90 courtrooms, 38 floors, … impressive!
The public entrance is located at 1 Parvis du Tribunal de Paris.
To enter the building, there is no need to show a summons or to prove your identity, you just have to go through the search of your bag + the scanner (like in an airport), nothing could be simpler, you are now in the hall of the courthouse and can admire its architecture and its impressive luminosity.
How do I attend hearings?
This isn’t necessarily known to everyone, but it is important to know that in France, justice is public.
Except for a few closed trials (juvenile court, some terrorism cases, …), everyone can attend the hearings without reservation and without having to justify themselves.
In the lobby, you will find digital terminals to help you find your way around. They aren’t of much interest if you are a simple visitor.
A reception area is available if you need to find your way around.
If you are just coming to attend a hearing, the easiest way is to look at the screen that lists the hearings scheduled for that day with the schedule and room number.
The place is quite impressive: it is huge and full of policemen and lawyers in black dress and white collar. Don’t worry, you have the right to be here 🙂
Small strangeness of the place, to go up the floors it is necessary to take the escalators but there isn’t one to go down, it is necessary to take the elevator.
Once you arrive on a floor, locate the room number you are interested in, a screen can confirm that you are in the right place.
I admit it took me a few minutes to do it the first time, but you have to dare: just open the door and enter the courtroom.
Usually, a police officer will approach you in a whisper to verify that you have turned off your phone. Make sure this is already done before you enter and be as discreet as possible, often the hearing is already in progress.
Also know that you can leave the room whenever you want. Once again, be as quiet as possible, this isn’t a movie theater, but in real life, you are witnessing a very important moment in the lives of victims and defendants.
How does a hearing take place?
The conduct of a hearing varies depending on the type of jurisdiction.
For my part, I have attended hearings of the Tribunal d’Instance (judging disputes involving amounts less than €10,000) and the Tribunal de Grande Instance (above €10,000).
Here is how this type of process is carried out in a simplified manner:
- The president of the court begins by stating the facts and questioning the actors: victims and defendants
- Lawyers for both parties as well as the attorney (representing the company) may ask questions
- The president then questions the accused about their current situation (do they have a home, a family, a job, …). The idea is to assess the risk of recidivism and, if they are convicted, to adapt the sanction to their situation.
- Lawyers may again ask questions
- The civil parties (representing the victims) plead and expose their claims for reparations (physical, material, moral, …)
- The prosecutor makes requisitions and will ask the president to convict or release the accused. In case of a conviction, he will ask for X months / years of prison (suspended or unsuspended) and / or Y € fine.
- It is the turn of the lawyers of the accused to make their pleadings.
- It is the accused who have the last word and can make a final statement.
- Finally, the President announces that the decision is “under advisement” and when he will announce the decision. Either after a recess or on a specific date.
What challenged me
The slowness of justice
We are used to criticizing the slowness of justice. It is true that it is true. In a banal case (a man beaten up after trying to intervene to help an elderly person who was being mistreated by thugs), the trial takes place 5 years after the fact.
The poor victim, who would have long since moved on if the case had gone to trial quickly, is still on anti-depressants, haunted by what he has suffered.
“Your file was probably not a priority,” apologizes the president…
The blind lawyer
On my left I see a large guide dog passing by. My surprise is great when I understand that he is guiding a lawyer.
The case is relatively complex in the sense that there are a dozen facts, as many victims, and numerous documents (minutes of interrogations, photographic plates, …).
Equipped with his large memory, his computer and his Braille notepad, he juggles perfectly with all these pieces. Correcting several times the president and his colleagues who are struggling while they have all the documents in front of them. He even allows himself to be self-mocking as he reads from the minutes: “According to Exhibit B35-1 that I have in front of me…”.
Inequality of opportunity
Accused of multiple extortion with the use of weapons, M. is in the box of the accused surrounded by two policemen, he has been in Fresnes prison for 18 months.
M. is only 20 years old, he is of Chechen nationality, left his country in war at the age of 4, lived 8 years in the Czech Republic before arriving in France at the age of 12.
M. is a smart kid. He speaks perfect French without an accent, he answers questions in a relevant way by rush into the president’s contradictions, he got his Baccalaureate in prison and has ambitions to study in a work-study program.
After several months (years?) in prison, he will come out with a long criminal record, without resources, in an irregular situation, … difficult to be optimistic about his future. What would have been my own path if I had the same story as him?
A life that can change at any time
Five friends are on trial for assaulting two other people.
Seeing these young people (in their twenties) from a tough suburban neighborhood, I expect to discover offenders with full criminal records
Not at all! Even if they come from a very popular background, their lockers are empty. They all have the Bac, some are working, others are continuing their studies. Models for suburban youth.
Weary, during an alcoholic Parisian evening, they come across two young students. A bad look? A provocation? Two minutes later, the two young people are on the spot.
Their defense is clumsy (they all recognize their presence on the spot but none of them recognize their participation in the violence and no one saw anything).
Big issue for one of the accused: finishing his studies in Canada, he dreams of obtaining a work permit there. Impossible if he does not have a clean criminal record.