The French court system – an overview02.10.10
French courts: division between courts in public matters and in private matters
In France, the structure of the judiciary system is divided into ordinary courts for handling civil and criminal litigation on the one hand, and administrative courts on the other hand. Each Court has its own special provisions for competence, how to file a lawsuit and representation by an attorney.
The administrative courts in France
The administrative courts handle lawsuits involving the French State, local authorities or other public authorities ruled by public law. Administrative courts handle, for example, litigation with a mayor’s office on the grant of a building license. Unlike Germany, France does not have a specific court for tax matters.
The administrative courts are divided into three tiers:
- First instance courts – administrative courts (Tribunal administratif)
- Intermediate appellate courts – administrative courts of appeal (Cour administrative d’appel)
- Courts of last resort – the Council of State (Conseil d’Etat)
The ordinary courts in France
- First Instance Courts
1.1. Courts of general jurisdiction in first instance
1.1.1. Criminal courts
- Police Court – “Tribunal de police”: These courts deal with minor offenses punishable by a fine up to 3,000 €, such as battery leading to an inability to work for up to 8 days.
- Criminal courts – “Tribunal correctionnel”: Criminal courts handle misdemeanors such as theft. The Criminal court constitutes one of the Chambers of the High Court.
- Jury court – “Cour d’assise”: Jury courts handle felonies. Every French department has a jury court. A jury court is composed of professional judges and a jury.
1.1.2. Civil courts
Since the reform of 2020, the courts of first instance and high courts have been merged into a single jurisdiction: the judicial court – “Tribunal Judiciaire”.
The judicial court has two overall competences:
- It is the court of general jurisdiction in civil and commercial matters, i.e. it rules all disputes relating to these matters, unless a special jurisdiction is expressly attributed to another court.
- The judicial court also has exclusive jurisdiction, particularly in matters of personal status, inheritance and most disputes relating to commercial leases. There is also a social chamber of the judicial court which deals with disputes related to social security.
The judicial court may also include a local chamber and/or local courts, which correspond more or less to the former district courts. The local court – “tribunal de proximité” has jurisdiction, unless another court has exclusive jurisdiction, when the amount of the claims is less than or equal to 10,000€. Before the trial, with some exceptions, conciliation, mediation or a participatory procedure must be attempted for disputes involving the payment of a sum not exceeding 5,000 € or for claims relating to a neighbourhood dispute.
A new judge is also emerging, the protection litigation judge – “juge des contentieux de la protection” (JCP). It is a specialised judge of the judicial court and the local court. It is competent to settle civil disputes concerning residential leases and consumer credits.
Representation by a lawyer is in principle mandatory before the judicial court. However, depending on the subject matter or the amount in dispute, the parties may be exempted from the obligation to be represented by a lawyer. In particular, before the judge in charge of protection litigation, a lawyer is not compulsory. Similarly, where the claim is for an amount less than or equal to 10,000 € and does not fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the court, a lawyer is not required.
It is therefore necessary for the persons involved in the proceedings to be officially represented by an attorney within the circuit of the High Court (so-called “avocat postulant”). If a lawyer is not entitled to represent his client before the Court that has jurisdiction in the case, a second lawyer (known as an “avocat postulant”), who is admitted in the circuit of the High Court that has jurisdiction over the case, must be approached. The avocat postulant appears in court and is in charge of the communication of briefs and exhibits to the Court; however, the clients’ usual lawyer (known as an “avocat plaidant”), manages the case and instructs the avocat postulant: he or she provides legal advice to the client in the matter, drafts court documents and pleads the case during the court hearing.
1.2.Specialized courts in first instance
- Labor courts – “Conseil des Prud’hommes”: Labor courts have jurisdiction in all litigation cases between employers and employees. The judges in labor courts are non-professional judges in most cases. Half of the court is composed of judges who are affiliated with employers, and the other half of judges who are affiliated with employees. Usual proceedings before a labor court are divided into two phases: a mediation hearing and a common, oral hearing.
- Commercial courts – “Tribunal de commerce”: The commercial court handles cases on commercial transactions or litigation between professionals. Just like in Germany, independent commercial courts do not exist in the Alsace and Moselle departments. In these departments, commercial litigation is handled by a commercial chamber of the High Court.
1.3. Court of Appeal – Cour d’appel
There are 36 Courts of Appeal in France. In most cases, it is mandatory to be represented by a lawyer. A Court of Appeal is divided into different chambers (civil, social, commercial and criminal chambers). It is not possible to file an appeal for cases with a value of up to 5,000 €. The appeal handles both matters of evidence in the case and legal analysis.
1.4. Supreme court – Cour de cassation
The French Supreme Court sits in Paris. It is the Supreme Court of ordinary jurisdiction. With the exception of certain appeals that go against the decisions of specialist courts, it is generally mandatory to be represented by an admitted lawyer in order to appear before the Supreme Court. Contrary to the Courts of Appeal, the Supreme Court only handles matters of law, and not questions of evidence in the case submitted. The Supreme Court creates precedents for futures cases in France and supervises the unity of French case law.
By Françoise Berton, French business lawyer
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