In the Name of the French People Trial by Jury or by Professional Judges? Publication date : October 3, 2013
François Saint-Pierre is a lawyer and a recognised specialist in penal procedure. He was the defence lawyer in several recent trials that received much media attention in France. He is the author of Avocat de la défense (2009), published by Editions Odile Jacob.
In France, justice is rendered ‘in the name of the French people’. But who should pronounce justice: a jury made up of citizens or a professional judge?
In French courts petty crimes or misdemeanours are judged in a magistrates’ court, with professional magistrates and without a jury. Serious crimes are judged by juries, in the Court of Assizes (criminal court). Why does such a distinction exist? What is its historical origin? What are the political reasons? What are the legal explanations? Does this mean that criminal justice is more reliable? Would criminal justice be less prone to err if it were rendered exclusively by professional magistrates?
Most jurors carry out their duties conscientiously, thus discovering the reality of criminal justice. The presidents of the Courts of Assizes argue that a jury trial maintains an essential link between magistrates and society. According to them, a people’s jury is a prerequisite for democratic justice. But do juries really play such a role, providing a system of checks and balances and guaranteeing that justice is democratically meted out? And do they still have the means to do so?
• An issue that has stirred French public opinion for more than three centuries: who should judge and who really judges?
• An inside view of a French Court of Assizes: the progression of a trial; the role and power of the President of the Court; how a juror becomes convinced ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’; who makes the final decision?