Criminal proceedings

Being involved in legal proceedings can raise a number of questions: you may want to know what steps to take, what will happen, etc.

Here you will find a brief description of the main stages of the criminal proceedings.

We will try to give you short and simple answers to questions such as:
How to report a criminal offence?
How are the investigations carried out?
What happens in court?
What is an appeal? Etc.

Your case may be lengthy in terms of legal proceedings, and there will also be a number of people involved: you can find out more about them in the section ‘Who’s who in criminal proceedings’.

The criminal offence

A criminal offence is defined as any act or omission defined by law and punishable by a penalty.

Most criminal offences are defined in the Criminal Code (but not all; they can also be found in the Highway Code, the Tax Code, the Consumer Code, etc.).

In France, there are three types of criminal offence:

  • minor offences : these are the least serious offences and get judged in the Police Court (e.g. disturbances at night, minor violence). The perpetrator of a minor offence incurs an administrative penalty, usually a fine. The limitation period for a minor offence is 1 year.
  • misdemeanours : these offences, halfway between minor offences and crimes, are judged in the Criminal Court – e.g. sexual assaults, wilful violence, theft. The sentence for a misdemeanour may be a prison term, a fine, etc. The limitation period for misdemeanours is in principle six years (but there are exceptions).
  • crimes : these are the most serious offences and are judged in the Court of Assizes (or the departmental criminal court) – e.g. homicide, rape. The perpetrator of a crime is sentenced to severe imprisonment. The limitation period for a crime is in principle 20 years (but there are exceptions with longer periods, or mechanisms for postponing the start of the limitation period).

The legislator creates criminal offences and, by means of associating a penalty with them, determines their category.

The creation of new criminal offences is linked to changing standards and society itself (e.g. adultery was decriminalised in 1975, a law of 9 July 2010 created a misdemeanour of psychological violence…).

Sometimes, a criminal offence can change ‘category’ either through reduction (i.e. the judge qualifies criminal behaviour as a misdemeanour, for example by deliberately omitting an aggravating circumstance; this happens in particular with sexual offences and can be hard for victims to accept), or through aggravation (i.e. due to aggravating circumstances that increase the penalty incurred, a minor offence becomes a misdemeanour or a misdemeanour becomes a crime).

Other distinctions in criminal offences:

  • offences against persons and offences against property: offences against persons include attempts on life (homicide) and attacks on a person’s physical or psychological integrity (e.g. assault); offences against property may involve, for example, theft, fraud or breach of trust.
  • wilful offences (committed voluntarily : murder, violence) and unintentional offences (unintentional offences i.e. the perpetrator did not intend to commit the offence – e.g. manslaughter, unintentional injury).

Reporting a criminal offence

When a criminal offence has been committed, victims can disclose the facts directly to the judicial authority by filing a complaint.

The complaint is the act by which the victim informs the judicial authorities that a crime has been committed. By filing a complaint, the victim allows investigations to be launched against the alleged perpetrator, which may lead to prosecution and, if necessary, conviction.

A complaint can be filed against an identified person or against X, if the victim does not know the identity of the offender.

Victims may file a complaint with any police station or gendarmerie throughout the country, regardless of where they and the perpetrator live: this is the ‘one-stop shop’ principle for filing a complaint.

The victim can also write directly to the Public Prosecutor to report the facts. This can be particularly useful if the police have refused to register the complaint, if there is a question over the limitation period or if it is more convenient for the victim.

Victims can also file a pre-complaint online, but only for offences against property (theft, damage, fraud, etc.) where the perpetrator is unknown. However, in order for the complaint to be properly registered, you will have to go to the gendarmerie or police station to complete the procedure.

Since 15 March 2022, it has finally been possible to lodge a complaint online for internet scams (and attempted scams) where the perpetrator is unknown.
This method of filing a complaint is not compulsory, the other traditional channels remain fully valid.

WARNING! It is important not to confuse a complaint with a daybook entry (main courante): a daybook entry is a simple statement made by the victim to the police or gendarmerie. It does not automatically trigger an investigation. It will be recorded in a log book and may be useful later on in the event of a complaint being lodged to support the case, but does not constitute proof in itself. At gendarmeries, these simple statements get recorded as an ‘official statement of facts’.
However, if the Public Prosecutor deems it appropriate (particularly in view of the seriousness or repeated nature of the facts), they themselves may initiate criminal proceedings on the basis of a daybook entry.

Victims are advised to prepare their complaint (collect different documents, if possible: papers, evidence, initial medical certificate), but they can always make additions to their original complaint if needed.
It is important for the victim to keep all documents given to them in the course of the proceedings (e.g. complaint receipt, court requisition, certificate from the forensic medical unit).

Filing a complaint is not a prerequisite for a public prosecution and investigations: when a criminal offence is brought to the attention of the Public Prosecutor, they may decide to initiate proceedings without waiting for the victim to file a complaint.

When the public prosecution has been initiated by the Public Prosecutor, the victim has the possibility to join the proceedings by registering as a civil party. In this way, the victim joins the criminal proceedings. The victim will be able to claim compensation for the damage(s) suffered. A civil party can be registered at any time during the proceedings, starting from the prosecutor’s decision, during the judicial investigation (if there is one) and up to the day of the trial, but must be done before the Public Prosecutor’s submissions.

Good to Know: Victims’ rights when filing a complaint

Everyone has the right to file a complaint. Your complaint cannot be refused, even if you do not to qualify the facts under criminal law; this is established in article 15-3 of the Code of Criminal Procedure: judicial police officers and agents have a duty to receive complaints from victims of criminal offences, even when these complaints are made in at a department or unit of the judicial police that does not have territorial jurisdiction. In this case, the complaint is, if necessary, forwarded to the department or unit with territorial jurisdiction.

After a complaint has been filed, a receipt is issued to the victim (which contains, among other things, a reference number of the complaint). In addition, if requested, the victim has the right to receive a copy of the complaint, which will include their entire statement.

The rights of victims when filing a complaint are listed in Article 10-2 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

These rights are also mentioned in an annex to the receipt of the victim’s complaint. However, victims do not necessarily read the entire document or understand all the information, which is why it is important that they are informed orally of the existence of victim support associations, which can inform them of their rights and assist them in enforcing them.

If the victim has a lawyer, the lawyer will, of course, also be able to explain their rights, advise them, represent them in the proceedings and assert those rights.

The investigation

When the authorities have established facts likely to constitute a criminal offence or a complaint has been filed, an investigation is launched.

Criminal investigations involve all actions to establish whether the criminal offence has actually been committed, who committed it, and collect evidence.

This phase can last from a few hours/days/weeks to several months, depending on the amount of evidence to be collected and the complexity of the facts (e.g. several perpetrators, several victims).

The duration of the preliminary investigation is limited to two years from the first act of investigation, including for on-the-spot investigations for offences caught in the act.
It may be extended once by a maximum of one year, with written and justified authorisation from the Public Prosecutor.
Consequently, any act of investigation after the expiry of these time limits will be void.

Investigations are the first stage of the criminal procedure, and are the responsibility of the judicial police under the supervision of the Public Prosecutor.

At this stage, the law enforcement agencies in charge of the investigations collect evidence. In particular:

  • They interview the victim, the suspect, and the witnesses;
  • They examine the crime scene for evidence;
  • They identify the suspect, asking the victim and witnesses to describe in detail the person who committed the criminal offence, whether they have seen them before and under what circumstances, and whether they can identify them as the offender from a group of people or in photographs;
  • They seek to obtain potentially important documents, such as a report from the medical centre where the victim received first aid or a list of telephone calls made by the suspect.

Forensic medical examination of the victim

As a victim, it will also be important at this stage to obtain a record of your injuries (whether physical or psychological). Most of the time, when you file a complaint, you will be given a judicial requisition, and you will then be referred to a doctor in a Medical-Judicial Unit, which may also be called a Forensic Medical Institute or a Medical-Legal Unit. The doctor will take your explanation of what happened to determine the link between your injuries and their findings.
The doctor will also establish the length of your total inability to work, in the criminal sense of the term; this does not necessarily mean you are signed off work, but it will be used by the judge to qualify the facts (e.g. a child, a person who is unemployed or who does not work can also have a total inability to work).

At the end of the medical examination, the doctor will draw up an initial medical certificate: one copy may be given to you, at your request (Article 10-5-1 of the Code of Criminal Procedure) and another sent directly to the police.

Closing the investigation stage

Once the necessary evidence has been gathered, the investigation file is closed and forwarded to the Public Prosecutor who will decide what actions to take (the ‘rule of discretionary prosecution’), with several possible options: close the case without further action, order an alternative measure to prosecution, or prosecute the defendant (with or without a judicial investigation).

The decision to prosecute or not depends on whether the Public Prosecutor’s Office considers that there is sufficient evidence against the suspect.
In some cases, the Public Prosecutor has no choice (e.g. for crimes they are obliged to open a judicial investigation).

In making their decision, they must take into account the facts of the case, the circumstances, the victim, but also, more generally, the current criminal policy.

- Option 1: Closing the case with no further action

If the perpetrator has not been identified or if, on the basis of the preliminary investigation, the Public Prosecutor considers that there is insufficient evidence that the suspect committed the criminal offence, they will decide not to prosecute. The complaint is said to be closed without further action.

Justification must be given for closing a case without further action, including legal reasons or reasons of expediency (e.g. insufficient evidence to characterise a criminal offence, public action has become time barred, perpetrator is not responsible, perpetrator has not been identified, etc.).

The victim must be informed of the decision (Article 40-2, paragraph 2 of the Code of Criminal Procedure), but in practice this does not always happen automatically. It is possible to find out from the police station or the court whether a decision has been made. The victim can also contact a victim support association for information.
The courts are increasingly asking victim support associations to assist victims after they have been informed that their complaint has been dismissed and the case closed without further action.

Closing a case without further action means that the Public Prosecutor did not think they had the necessary elements to initiate criminal proceedings. Victims can challenge this decision if they wish. They have mainly three remedies:

  • A hierarchical appeal to the Attorney General against the decision to close the case without further action. The case is then transferred to the Attorney General, who will be responsible for reassessing the suitability for prosecution: the Attorney General may agree with the Public Prosecutor’s opinion or order them to prosecute.
  • Direct summons: the victim can initiate proceedings of their own accord and prosecute the perpetrator by summoning him or her to appear before the court. This procedure includes a deposit fee calculated according to the victim’s resources. If the procedure is unsuccessful, the money will not be returned.
  • This procedure does not cost anything for the victim. It is possible in cases of medium seriousness, for misdemeanours or minor offences, where the reality of the facts committed and the damage suffered has been established and the perpetrator is known.
  • A complaint to the Senior Investigating Judge, with registration as a civil party, the judge will then launch and direct a judicial investigation. In this case, the victim will have to pay a deposit based on their income. If the procedure does not lead to any prosecution, the deposit is not returned.

Finally, the victim may also bring a case in a civil court to claim compensation for their loss.

If a victim wants to challenge the decision, it is important to obtain the advice of a lawyer in order to assess which option is most appropriate.
Jurists from victim support associations can also provide information on these remedies (but cannot give legal advice).

- Option 2: Ordering an alternative measure to prosecution

The Public Prosecutor may also order an alternative measure to prosecution.
In France, approximately 40% of cases that could be prosecuted (i.e. where the perpetrator has been identified and the criminal offence has been established) are dealt with by an alternative to prosecution.
Alternative measures to prosecution have three objectives:

  • Ensure compensation for the damage caused to the victim (resulting from the legislator’s desire to ensure victims are not overlooked),
  • Put an end to the situation caused by the criminal offence,
  • Contribute to the social reintegration of the perpetrator.

Alternative measures to prosecution are only applicable for “low-level misdemeanours”, not for serious offences or crimes.

There are several types of alternative measures offering a graduated criminal response, including criminal mediation (not permitted for cases of domestic violence since the law of 30 July 2020), appearance on prior admission of guilt, criminal settlement, etc.

The adoption of alternative measures suspends any public prosecution and, if the parties do not reach an agreement or the agreement is not respected, the Public Prosecutor can initiate proceedings.
With criminal mediation, if the parties reach an agreement, the complaint is closed without further action.

Appearance on prior admission of guilt is also an alternative measure to prosecution: it is a procedure that allows for rapid judgement of an adult perpetrator who has admitted to the facts (also known as ‘pleading guilty’). This can be used for all offences except media offences, manslaughter and political offences, as well as intentional or unintentional injury to persons and sexual assault punishable by more than five years’ imprisonment.
This procedure is initiated at the request of the Public Prosecutor, the Investigating Judge or the defendant. It consists, as far as the prosecutor is concerned, in offering the accused, who has pleaded guilty, one or more penalties; if the defendant accepts the offer, it is submitted for approval to the Presiding Judge of the Court. The judge’s decision, which is jurisdictional, can be appealed and has the same effect as a guilty verdict. Therefore, this procedure replaces the traditional trial before a criminal jurisdiction. The victim must be informed of this procedure and may claim damages.

- Option 3: Prosecution:

If the Public Prosecutor believes there is sufficient evidence that the suspect has committed a criminal offence, the suspect will be formally prosecuted and may be tried, i.e. there will be a trial.

The Public Prosecutor may decide to prosecute. The defendant may be informed of the proceedings in different ways: by a bailiff, by a summons, by being arrested, by being remanded in custody, etc.

The trial will not necessarily take place immediately, and a judicial investigation may be needed as an interim measure and for certain types of offences (mandatory for crimes and optional for misdemeanours).

The judicial investigation

The judicial investigation is the responsibility of the Investigating Judge, who examines the case for the prosecution and the defence, and may do what is needed to establish the truth.

At the end of their investigations, the Investigating Judge either issues an order to dismiss the case or decides to proceed (referral order or partial dismissal). The Public Prosecutor’s Office issues its opinion, and the Public Prosecutor can appeal to the Investigating Chamber.

The victim can also initiate a judicial investigation if they file a complaint and register as a civil party (immediately after the offence was committed for criminal offences, or after the case has been closed without further action or if there is no response from the Public Prosecutor within three months of the initial filing of the complaint, for other offences).
However, this involves a deposit fee set by the judge based on the victim’s income. If the fee is not paid within the time limit, the complaint may be dismissed. The sum is also not returned in case of malicious prosecution. Therefore, it is essential to get advice before starting this process. However, if the victim receives legal aid, they will not have to pay these costs.

When a judicial investigation is opened, the investigating judge writes to the victims identified in the proceedings to inform them of this new stage. Victims have the possibility to become civil parties at this point (by writing to the investigating judge), which will allow them, among other things, to have access to the file.

At the end of the judicial investigation, the Investigating Judge has several options:

The trial

When a prosecution is initiated, the case is referred to a court of law for trial. There are different jurisdictions according to the type of criminal offence:

  • The Court of Assizes (or Departmental Criminal Court) for crimes,
  • The Criminal Court for misdemeanours,
  • The Police Court for minor offences.

General information about the trial

A trial is a hearing in a court of law in which a dispute is brought before it and a decision is reached.
The purpose of a criminal trial is to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to convict the defendant for the offence charged and, if so, to pass judgement. It is important to know that even if a judgement is made against the defendant, this does not mean that the defendant will go to prison. There is a range of penalties in addition to imprisonment.
The trial also decides whether the victim and any other person who has suffered harm as a result of the crime are entitled to compensation, at their request.

In principle, trials are public, which means that anyone can attend the hearing (according to the open court principle). There are, however, some exceptions, in order to protect the privacy of the victim, but also when publicity could be ‘dangerous to public order, the smooth running of the proceedings, the dignity of the person or the interests of a third party’. This is particularly important in the case of sexual crimes or human trafficking.
In particular, in cases of rape or torture and acts of barbarity accompanied by sexual assault, a victim who has registered as a civil party has the right to a trial in a closed chamber, if they so request, which is automatic when the victim is a minor. In other cases, a closed chamber may be ordered if the victim who is a civil party or one of the victims who are civil parties does not object.

Since a law of 22 December 2021, criminal trials may be filmed or recorded for reasons of public educational, informative, cultural, or scientific interest. Similarly, trials, examinations, and meetings conducted by the Investigating Judge may also be recorded and broadcast.

Not all trials will be filmed: authorisation for recording and broadcasting must be given by the heads of the courts concerned, after consulting the Minister of Justice.
Footage may only be broadcast once a final judgement has been issued, with the consent of the parties concerning their image rights and in accordance with the principle of respect for privacy and the presumption of innocence.
If the trial is not public, recording will be subject to the prior written consent of all parties or their legal representatives.
No further identifying elements of the persons recorded may be broadcast 5 years after the first broadcast, or 10 years after the recording was authorised.

Preparation for trial

After receiving the case file, the judge (who is not the same as the Investigating Judge, if there has been a judicial investigation) sets the date for the trial and issues a summons to the defendant, as well as a written notification to all persons who participated in the judicial investigation phase. In particular, a victim notice (avis à victime) is sent to all victims, who will be able to register as a civil party in the proceedings, if they have not already done so, and claim damages.

The trial is an important step, often long-awaited but at the same time dreaded by some victims. A victim can be assisted by victim support associations to prepare for the trial (e.g. psychological support, explanation of who does what, visit to the courtroom).

Victims’ rights at trial

During the proceedings, in order to become a party to the trial and to have their voice heard, the victim must register as a civil party.
This allows them to access the criminal file, take part in the proceedings, be informed of the outcome of the proceedings (i.e. receive a copy of the judgement and the certificate of no appeal), and claim damages for the harm suffered.

To register as a civil party, if you have not already done so, you can:

  • before the trial, either submit your request in writing to the court clerk’s office, or send a letter by registered letter with acknowledgement of receipt, fax or e-mail (must be received by the court at least 24 hours before the hearing date) in which you quantify all of your losses and specifying, if necessary, that you will not be attending the trial;
  • come to court on the day of the trial.

In all cases you can be assisted or represented by a lawyer.
Jurists from the victim support associations can also provide assistance and information to register as a civil party. However, unlike the lawyer, they cannot provide advice or represent the victim in court.

Form to be completed in order to become a civil party in an ongoing case: CERFA Form to become a civil party.pdf

At the trial, the victim has the right to be present (alone, accompanied by a relative, an association, or a lawyer) or to be represented by a lawyer. They can ask the judge to hold the trial without the public being present, in ‘closed chamber’. The judge will decide whether to accept this request before the trial begins.

Representation by a lawyer

In any case, you are entirely free to choose your lawyer.
You can have a free consultation with a lawyer at one of the drop-in sessions organised by the Bar Association in your area. Victim support associations will be able to provide you with all useful information on this subject.
The lawyer’s fees are not fixed. It is important to discuss them from the outset with a very precise fee agreement setting out the rates.

Legal fees and costs

There are several solutions for covering all or part of the costs and fees incurred, in certain cases, during criminal proceedings:

  • A legal protection or assistance clause in an insurance policy that pays for all or some of a lawyer’s costs and fees;
  • Legal aid: this can be granted to people on a low income, and means the State will pay all or some of the legal fees.

You can only claim legal aid if you do not have any legal protection insurance that would cover these costs.
However, it is automatically granted for the most serious offences, all of which are listed in the Criminal Code (e.g. crimes such as rape, murder).

Different forms of trial

Before the Court of Assizes:

Trials in the Court of Assizes involve six popular jurors chosen by lot and three professional judges.
Cases are referred to the Court of Assizes by the Investigating Judge, by means of an Order of Indictment (a judicial investigation is mandatory in the case of a crime).

The trial before the Court of Assizes is oral, public, and adversarial, i.e. each party will be heard. The case file is not made available to the jury before the trial. Consequently, the only way jurors can find out about the case is during the proceedings, through questioning, testimony, expert evidence, etc.

However, in cases where holding a public trial is likely to be prejudicial to public order or morality, the presiding judge may decide, at their own initiative or at the request of the victims in the case of sexual offences, to hold a trial in closed chamber. In this case, only defendants and victims will be allowed to attend the trials.

The jury is assembled and each juror must first take an oath.
The accused must be represented by a lawyer.

For the victim, the presence of a lawyer is never compulsory, but it remains very essential.

The Presiding Judge of the Court of Assizes directs the proceedings and adopts all the measures necessary for the trial to run smoothly, and gives the floor to all the persons who are called upon to intervene in the trial.
First, the Judge briefly presents the facts with which the accused is charged along with the case for the prosecution and the defence.
The trial then proceeds in the following order:

Examination of the accused;

  • Hearing of witnesses and experts after they have taken their oath. An adversarial debate (cross-examination) may follow for each witness;
  • Hearing of the civil parties;
  • Oral pleadings from the civil parties;
  • Applications (submissions) from the Public Prosecutor (Advocate-General, who pleads as a representative of the public interest);
  • Oral pleadings by the defendant’s lawyer;
  • The accused is given the last word.

The civil parties and the prosecution are, of course, entitled to reply, but the accused or their lawyer always has the last word.

Departmental Criminal Courts:

The Departmental Criminal Courts were created by the Justice Reform of 23 March 2019.
They are competent to judge, in first instance, crimes punishable by 15 or 20 years of severe imprisonment, committed by adults who have not re-offended.

These courts are composed of only five professional judges, unlike the Courts of Assize which are composed of three professional judges and six popular jurors.
They were created to speed up the trial of certain crimes and to limit the practice of ‘reduction’ (a phenomenon whereby certain facts that should be characterised as crimes and judged by a Court of Assizes are instead qualified as misdemeanours and judged by a Criminal Court).

On 1 January 2021, a trial was launched for 15 Departmental Criminal Courts, with the scheme to be rolled out across the country in January 2023.

Criminal Court:

Trials before the Criminal Court are oral, public, and adversarial, i.e. each party will be heard. In principle, trials take place before three judges, except for certain less serious cases, which may be tried by a single judge.
Cases may be referred to the Criminal Court by:

The defendant is summoned to appear at the trial: they must usually appear in person and may be assisted by a lawyer.
The trial is public, unless the Presiding Judge decides otherwise.

Victims may represent themselves, be represented by a lawyer, or appear with their lawyer.

The Presiding Judge questions the accused, then hears the witnesses and, if necessary, the experts.
The floor is then given to the victim, then to the Public Prosecutor for their submissions, and finally to the defendant’s lawyer and/or the defendant. In all cases, the defendant should be given the opportunity to have the last word.
The parties may request a postponement of the trial to a later date, for various reasons (e.g. need more time to prepare the defence or the victim’s claim for damages, request for an expert opinion).
The court may impose imprisonment, fines, or alternative sanctions.

N.B.: Immediate appearance
Immediate appearances may be called by the Public Prosecutor. They allow for a quick judgement on cases where the facts are clear and there does not seem to be any particular complexity.
The prosecutor receives the alleged offender, informs them of the charges and of the summons to appear before the Criminal Court. The accused will be assisted by a lawyer – who will be appointed automatically, if necessary – and may refuse to agree to an immediate appearance.

The Criminal Court will be composed of three judges, even if the criminal offence would normally have been tried by just one judge.
The defendant is summoned to appear before the Criminal Court and, once they have agreed to an immediate appearance, the trial will begin. If they refuse to be tried immediately (for example if they want more time to prepare a defence), the court will have to postpone the trial to a later date.
This procedure is available for misdemeanours punishable by at least two years’ imprisonment (at least six months for misdemeanours caught in the act).

In addition, it may not be possible to appear before the Criminal Court on the same day: in this case, while awaiting judgement, the Bail and Custodial Procedures Judge may be asked to decide if the defendant should be placed in pre-trial detention (under certain conditions) or be subject to one or more court-ordered restrictions.

Often, this procedure is a real ‘race against time’ for the victim because it is important, despite the speed with which the trial takes place, that they are informed and have the opportunity to exercise their rights if they so wish.

Police Court:

This court has jurisdiction over minor offences (i.e. the least serious offences under criminal law). It cannot impose prison sentences, but it can issue fines of up to €3,000 and adopt additional measures, such as, among others, the suspension of driving licences.

The summons to the court is made by simple letter or by a summons sent by a bailiff. The defendant is not obliged to appear in person (they may be represented by their lawyer or send a letter to the Presiding Judge asking to be tried in their absence).
The procedure is generally the same as in the ordinary courts.

In addition, for certain minor offences there may be a simplified procedure, without trial and without adversarial debate, by decision of the Public Prosecutor who referred the matter to the Police Court judge. The offender can object to this procedure (as can the victim, but only with regard to damages).

Juvenile Courts:

The law says that all minors capable of understanding are criminally responsible for the offences of which they have been found guilty.
Juvenile offenders may only be tried by specialised courts: the Juvenile Judge, the Juvenile Court and the Juvenile Court of Assizes. The age for determining the competent jurisdiction is the one of the offender at the date the criminal offence was committed.

The Juvenile Judge is competent, in principle, for Class 5 minor offences (i.e. criminal offences punishable by a maximum fine of €1500, or €3000 for a repeat offence) and offences committed by minors.

The judge may decide to refer the child to the Juvenile Court if the minor is at least 13 years old, if the sentence is at least three years, and if the minor’s personality or the complexity of the facts justify it. In other cases, the Juvenile Judge rules alone, at a trial held in their office and not in a courtroom. The judge hears the minor, who must be assisted by a lawyer and who must be accompanied by their parents (or legal representatives). The victim may also be present.
The Juvenile Judge can only pronounce reformatory measures involving assistance, supervision, placement, or judicial protection.

The Juvenile Court, composed of the Juvenile Judge and two assessors (professionals assisting the judge), rules on misdemeanours or Class 5 offences committed by all minors, as well as on offences punishable by a prison sentence of at least three years, if the minor is at least 13 years old, and if his or her personality or the seriousness of the facts justify it. The court has three types of sanctions for minors:

  • Reformatory measures can be adopted regardless of the age of the child;
  • Sanctions of a reformatory nature, such as a ban on contact with the victim, may be imposed on a minor aged 10 years or over;
  • Minors between the ages of 13 and 16 can be punished. Any punishment must be justified by the circumstances and child’s personality, taking into account the principle of mitigation of responsibility (which generally reduces the punishment by half). The Juvenile Court may decide to not apply mitigation of liability for minors over 16 years of age, subject to giving specific reasons.

Finally, the Juvenile Court of Assizes, composed of three professional judges and six popular jurors chosen by lot, rules on crimes committed by minors aged 16 to 18 and their accomplices or co-perpetrators.
Trials in the Juvenile Court and the Juvenile Court of Assizes are held only in the presence of the victims, the accused, their immediate family members and representatives of reform services.

However, the trial may be held in public if the accused, who was a minor at the time of the criminal offence and who has reached the age of majority at the time of the trial, so requests, or at the request of another accused adult or the Public Prosecutor. The Court of Assizes does not grant this request when there is another accused who is still a minor or when ‘the personality of the accused, who was a minor at the time of the events, makes it essential that, in his or her interest, the proceedings should not be public’.

In other cases, the court will take into account the interests of society, the accused and the civil parties in its decision.
A major reform of juvenile criminal justice was introduced in France in September 2021, with a Juvenile Criminal Justice Code.

The courtroom

The criminal trial takes place in the Police Court for minor offences, in the Criminal Court for misdemeanours, and in the Court of Assizes for crimes. Trials are always public, except in exceptional cases.

The Police Court rules with a single judge, assisted by a court clerk. The Public Prosecutor’s Office is represented by the Public Prosecutor.

The Criminal Court is in principle composed of three professional judges, presided by one of them and assisted by a clerk. The Public Prosecutor’s Office is again represented by the Public Prosecutor.

The Departmental Criminal Court is composed exclusively of five professional judges, unlike the Court of Assizes which is composed of three professional judges, one Presiding judge, two assessors (assistants to the presiding Judge) and a people’s jury (6 jurors).

The following people are present at a criminal trial:



During a trial, their task is to settle a case on the basis of the evidence, witness statements, and expert opinions presented to them.

At the end of the trial, they give their decisions, through orders, judgements, or rulings.

Once the judge has made a decision, the case is closed and the effects must apply. If one of the parties does not agree and believes that the judge has misapplied the law, they can appeal to have the case tried a second time.

Public Prosecutor/Advocate-General

The prosecutor does not judge cases but represents society by defending its interests. They ensure that the criminal law is respected by the judges in the courts.

As a party to the proceedings, the Public Prosecutor therefore pleads the interests of society. In the Criminal Court, they present their case after the victim or the victim’s lawyer has presented theirs.
They demonstrate the proof of the facts and the guilt of the offender, and request a specific sentence for the offender: these requests are called ‘submissions’.

In the Court of Assizes, it is the Advocate-General who calls for the application of the law and looks after the general interests of society.
As with the Public Prosecutor in the Criminal Court, the Advocate-General’s submissions are made at the end of the debating stage, after the pleadings of the civil parties’ lawyer or the civil party itself.

Court Clerk

The Court Clerk is the judge’s closest collaborator. They attend the trials and their role is to ensure the smooth running of the trial and to verify the authenticity of the documents drawn up by the judges. A document not signed by the Court Clerk has no legal basis.

They have real control over the proceedings because they transcribe the debate by recording the statements of the persons being judged, draw up a report and record the conclusions of the court.
They also obtain the signature of any civil parties, so that they can be reimbursed for their legal costs if necessary.

Victim (civil party)

A victim of a criminal offence is a person who has individually or collectively suffered harm, whether physical or moral, resulting from material loss, physical injury, or emotional suffering. A victim’s fundamental legally-protected rights have been severely violated.

If the victim wants to be a party to the proceedings, they must register as a civil party.

Civil party’s lawyer

The lawyer is there to assist the victim, to give legal advice on the facts of the case, to inform the victim and to represent the victim throughout the legal proceedings.

The lawyer’s role is to provide information and advice, i.e. to explain to the victim the legal rules applicable in the case. The lawyer represents the victim, which means that they can act in their place and on their behalf, even if the victim does not wish to be present at the trial.

During the trial, their purpose is to convince the judges to run on the guilt of the accused and to obtain compensation for the victim’s injuries. In order to do this, the victim’s lawyer can address any person heard in court (witnesses, experts, the accused, etc.) directly by asking them questions.


In criminal matters, the accused (for crimes) or the defendant (for misdemeanours and minor offences) is the individual or legal entity against whom the legal action is brought. They are summoned to appear in court for committing an offence that caused harm to the victim.

Defence lawyer

The role of the defence lawyer is to represent an individual suspected of having committed an offence. They use all legal means to have their client acquitted/declared not guilty.
Throughout the legal proceedings, the objective is to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of their client.

Witness / experts / judicial police

The witness is an essential part of the trial. A witness is an individual, other than the suspect or the victim, who knows something that will help uncover the truth or who saw the scene of the crime. The judges use witness statements to try to judge the case as fairly as possible.

Judicial experts are people qualified in a specific field (medicine, construction, forensic science, etc.), who can help judges on specific technical points. Their opinion is not binding on the judge, but judges may be guided by their knowledge when making their decision.

The judicial police work closely with the Public Prosecutor during the judicial investigation, and with judges during a judicial investigation, in order to find out the truth about the case in hand. It conducts judicial investigations, during which it gathers as much evidence as possible in order to clear or charge the suspect.


The interpreter’s task is to translate what the judge and the various participants in the trial say, to ensure that the procedure is properly understood by all parties and that the best possible judgement is reached.
Interpreters can also help deaf and mute people.

The judgement

The judgement is a legal ruling, which also decides on the merits of the case.
The court may sentence the offender to a criminal punishment (e.g. a fine, imprisonment), and it may also issue a decision on civil interests aimed at compensating the victim, who has registered as a civil party to the proceedings, ordering the offender to pay damages.

If the case is simple and the decision ‘easy to make’, the judge can give judgement immediately. However, in the majority of cases, the judge sets a date a few days/weeks later for announcing the decision.

The judgement must state:

  • the facts which the judge considers to be proven,
  • the facts that have not been proven,
  • the evidence on which the decision is based.

In the Court of Assizes, once the debating stage of the trial is over, the deliberation stage begins; certain questions are put to the Court and the jury. The deliberation, which is secret, consists of two parts:

  • Deliberation on guilt: a majority of seven votes is required for any guilty verdict (eight votes for appeals). Blank or invalid votes are counted in favour of the accused. If the accused is found not guilty, they are acquitted. If found guilty, the court decides on the sentence.
  • Deliberation on the sentence: the decision must be taken by an absolute majority of those voting. However, the maximum sentence can only be imposed by a majority of seven votes (or eight for appeals).

The decision of the Court of Assizes must be reasoned and is always announced in open court. Once the criminal trial is over, a civil hearing may follow, in which the judges of the Court of Assizes will decide on the damages claimed by the victim, without the participation of the jurors.

In general and for all jurisdictions, if the perpetrator is convicted, the ruling describes the type of sentence and the information taken into account when deciding the sentence.

For a minor offence, the penalty is a fine.

For a misdemeanour, the defendant (offender) may be sentenced especially to a suspended or non-suspended prison sentence, a fine, etc. If the defendant is not found guilty, they will be released.

In criminal cases, the accused may be sentenced to a term of severe imprisonment, which may be accompanied by a minimum term (i.e. a period during which the convicted person is not allowed to seek any form of release or adjustment of the sentence). If the accused is not found guilty, they will be released.

Appeals and other remedies

All decisions by any type of criminal courts can be appealed.
An appeal is a way of challenging a decision handed down following an adversarial trial in the first instance.
French law applies a principle of two-level jurisdiction: the Courts of Appeal are second instance courts, superior to the lower court whose decision is being challenged.

The time limit for appeal is 10 whole days, and one month if the person lives outside mainland France. In the event of an appeal by one of the parties (Public Prosecutor, civil party, or defendant), the other parties have five additional days to appeal. The time limit runs from when the judgement becomes adversarial (or from when it was served, in certain cases listed in the Code of Criminal Procedure).

In principle, the appeal suspends the enforcement of the first instance decision (subject to the provisions of the first instance court ): the sentence is therefore not executed.
The Court of Appeal re-examines the case in its entirety (findings of fact and points of law), which can sometimes be burdensome for victims.

All parties can appeal: the accused, the victim (civil party) and the Public Prosecutor (who represents the general interest), however, the civil party can only appeal on the award of damages: the victim can thus contest the amount of compensation awarded by the court, but not the sentence pronounced against the perpetrator (or the lack of a criminal conviction).

In addition, it is always possible to challenge the decision of the Court of Appeal by lodging an appeal with the Court of Cassation. The judges of this court do not retry the case, but verify that the law has been correctly applied. They may uphold the decision or order that it be retried by another Court of Appeal.

I was a victim of a criminal offence: consequences and reactions The rights of victims of a criminal offence Criminal proceedings Who is who in criminal proceedings

Useful contacts Glossary

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