The position of accused persons under the common law system in australia (more particularly in new south wales) and the civil law system in france

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In comparing the position of accused persons in the present legal systems of common law Australia1 and civil law France, it is necessary to appreciate the legal cultures in which those two systems have evolved. This involves some understanding of the historical developments and the consequent governmental and societal arrangements that have shaped those cultures. Examples of this may be found in the development of the jury in England (first as witnesses, then as judges of the facts, having significant responsibility as laypersons for the administration of justice, and also for orality in the legal system and the perceived need of exclusionary rules of evidence), and in the impact of the French Revolution from 1789 and the advent of Napoleon (downgrading the judicial power previously exercised by the Parlements, upgrading the legislative power with the resultant all-embracing Codes, and confirming the importance of a powerful prosecuting authority (Ministère Public) but also of an impartial judicial investigation (by a juge d’instruction)). Developments such as these have led to differing attitudes within the two legal systems to the relative importance of the trial as opposed to the investigation, to orality as opposed to the documentary, to openness as opposed to secrecy in proceedings, to methods of establishing guilt and more generally to differing attitudes to the relations between individuals and the state.

Matters such as these have resulted in identifiable, differentiating characteristics as between the two legal systems. One comparativist, Mirjan Damaška, has perceptively and instructively related modes of organisation of state authority in the two systems to criminal procedure in those systems. The organisation of state authority in the common law system he characterises as coordinate, with mild ordering of authority through variably-trained, decentralised operatives including laypersons, flexible rules allowing for discretions and an informal and public style (incorporating orality), all aiming for particularised justice through operatives close to the life situations involved in cases being individually processed. The organisation in the civil law system is characterised as hierarchical, with centralised and rigidly-ordered authority, determinative rules, certainty of decision-making, professional operatives, official documentation, bureaucratic techniques and secrecy.2 These modes of organisation of authority are then found to be reflected in the criminal procedures of the two systems. The same commentator, querying the common descriptions of legal proceedings in common law systems as ‘adversarial’ and in civil law systems as ‘inquisitorial’ has suggested, as more revealing, the labels ‘party contest’ for the common law system and ‘official enquiry’ for the civil law system.3

Accepting the labels ‘party contest’ and ‘official enquiry’ and the Damaškan notion of relating criminal procedure to types of state authority as appropriate for the Australian and French criminal justice systems respectively, we might then apply them to the processing of cases in the two criminal justice systems. This will reveal an essential difference between the two systems.

If the Australian system is understood as a contest between the prosecution and the defence – with a finding of guilty or not guilty as the outcome – then the focus of the system will be upon the trial. The evidence and the arguments for each side will be mustered for the trial court (judge and jury for the most serious offences, magistrate for the others). The investigation of the offence in question – which will be carried out by the police – will be preparatory to the trial, and the record of the investigation will not go before the court, but the oral evidence of witnesses whose statements were obtained during the investigation will, and it is on this (and any other evidence) that the court will resolve the contest between the parties. The evidence may or may not include evidence by the accused, or admissions made during the investigation to the police. The trial thus becomes – for the Australian system – the crucial phase of the procedure, and the accused’s fate is determined by it. The truth in relation to the criminal events may or may not be revealed, that is not the object of the process.

Understanding the French system, on the other hand, as an official enquiry, places the focus of the system on the investigation. The investigation has the express objective of revealing the truth surrounding the events in question (la manifestation de la verité).4 A suspect or defendant is regarded as a valuable source of information in the search for the truth, and is expected to, and generally does, cooperate with the investigators (and later the trial court) in that endeavour.5 The investigation is conducted by an investigating judge commissioned by a prosecutor (procureur), assisted by the judicial police,6 for the most serious offences and by the judicial police supervised by a prosecutor for the less serious offences. The investigation is fully recorded in a dossier and if the case goes to a trial (or rather a hearing7) before a court of judgment the dossier will be available to the judges (although not to the nine jurors who sit with the three judges in the jury court (cour d’assises)). The hearing in the French criminal courts has been aptly likened to an ‘audit’ of the dossier.8

The conviction rate in the French criminal courts is around 95%,9 so that if the conclusion drawn from the dossier is guilt and the case is sent to a hearing then a conviction is highly probable. It is in fact unlikely that a case would be sent to a hearing by a prosecutor if the dossier did not allow for a conclusion of guilt, so that an accused’s fate is largely determined by the conclusions drawn from the dossier. It can thus be said that the investigation is the crucial phase in the French criminal justice system.

Important consequences, again relevant to our purposes, flow from the difference in focus between the two systems. The focus on the trial in the Australian system means that the system is based on oral evidence and that it essentially functions in public, while the focus on the investigation in the French system means that the system is based on documents and that it is essentially secret.10

Before looking more closely at the position of the accused in the two systems a brief sketch of the French criminal justice system and its different levels would be appropriate.11 (I assume the same will not be necessary for the Australian system given the likely readership of this article.)

A Offences

  • Crimes, punishable with imprisonment from 10 years to life.

  • Délits, punishable with imprisonment for up to 10 years.

  • Contraventions, of five classes, punishable with fines.

B Criminal Courts

  • Cour d’assises, deals with crimes, constituted by a President, two other judges and nine jurors (jurés), decisions against an accused to be by at least eight out of the 12; witnesses generally called but led through their evidence by the President.

  • Tribunal correctionnel, deals with délits (or crimes treated as délits by a process known as ‘correctionalisation’), constituted generally by three judges, sometimes one; witnesses generally not called except any civil party (or victim).

  • Tribunal de police, constituted by a single judge; witnesses generally not called except any civil party (or victim).

C Types of Investigation

  • Judicial Investigation (Instruction Criminelle) for all crimes and some délits is conducted by an investigating judge, who is required to investigate both inculpatory and exculpatory matters. This judge also has powers to order detention (détention provisoire) of the defendant (la mise en examen, previously l’inculpé), searches and seizures, telephone interceptions, to interrogate the defendant and witnesses, to arrange confrontations of witnesses with the defendant and reconstructions of the alleged offence, to obtain reports from experts, to delegate investigative measures to the judicial police (under a commission rogatoire) including inquiries about the defendant’s personnalité (as to which see later), and to cause the defendant to be remitted to the cour d ’assises or the tribunal correctionnel for a hearing or to be discharged (classé sans suite). The investigation is fully recorded in the dossier by a grefier working with the investigating judge. The dossier is accessible only to the prosecutor and the lawyers (avocats) for the defendant and any civil party (as to whom see later), although in high profile cases it can ‘leak’.12

  • Investigation of Flagrant Offences (Enquête de Flagrance), for crimes and délits that are in the course of being, or have recently been, committed and often as a preliminary to a judicial investigation, conducted by the judicial police who have the power to detain suspects (and previously witnesses) under a garde à vue for up to 48 hours, and to search premises without consent. A prosecutor has special powers in relation to the investigation of a flagrant offence, including requiring a witness to attend for questioning by the judicial police, and interrogating personally any suspect.13

  • Preliminary Investigation (Enquête Préliminaire), for non-flagrant délits and contraventions, also conducted by the judicial police but with more limited powers in the absence of prosecutorial authorisation, but a suspect may be detained by the police under a garde à vue in some circumstances.14

Two further points about the French criminal justice system should be made. Although offences, criminal courts and types of investigation have been presented on three broadly correlated levels, the levels could readily be reduced to two by drawing a distinction between the top level (investigation by investigating judge, hearing in jury court) and the two lower levels (investigation by judicial police, hearing before judges alone). A similar distinction has been drawn in common law systems between a top level (jury trial, with crown prosecutor, defence counsel and due process) and a lower level (before magistrate, with police prosecutor, maybe a defence lawyer and scant due process),15 although in common law systems the police carry out the investigation at both levels. The similarity of this distinction within the two systems is of course weakened by the absence of the investigating judge in common law systems, but it should be noted that the investigating judge in France now investigates less than 3% of all criminal cases,16 and then with considerable assistance from the judicial police.

The other point is that as France is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights17 the provisions of that Convention apply to the French legal system. More particularly article 6 of the Convention mandating the requirements for a fair trial apply to the criminal justice system. Reference will be made in what follows to some impacts of this Convention on the French system.

I can now consider the positions of accused persons in the Australian (primarily New South Welsh) and French criminal justice systems in relation to a number of key topics.

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