Plans to extend trials by jury

Sentencing is too light, says the president

1 March 2011

MORE court cases will be tried by a jury under a law expected to be presented to parliament by May.

President Sarkozy believes judges are not tough enough: juries, he thinks, will avoid sentences that "do not match up to the severity French people and crime victims expect", he said.

At present, juries hear the most serious crimes, such as murder and rape, at cours d'assises. Nine jurors, who are summoned at random from parliamentary electoral rolls, sit with three judges.

Under the new plans, jurors (possibly only two) would also sit in tribunaux correctionnels, which judge crimes such as theft, fraud or assault and which are at present heard by a single judge or panel of three.

This is part of wider plans to get tougher on crime, such as reviewing the practice under which 16- to 18-year-olds face milder punishment than adults. This is in light of the fact that teenagers today commit more serious crimes than in the past.

However the proposed reform comes as judges have been on strike, saying the system is overloaded and underfunded.

The leader of judges' union Syndicat de la magistrature, Odile Barral, said only two per cent of cases concern crimes, the rest being contraventions (minor offences) or
délits (medium-severity crimes).

"At the assizes, the president goes through the whole dossier and all witnesses are heard again, whereas, in the tribunaux correctionnels, a dozen cases might be heard in
an afternoon. The president has studied the case and goes quickly, summarising it.

"Jurors will not know the case or procedures and we will spend more time on each case and judge a lot fewer, yet the government has been cutting staffing. It will cost
more and we struggle to pay jurors as it is."

Ms Barral said added the union prefers the system used in children's courts, where members of the public with an interest in youth justice are nominated for several years to assist regularly. In comparison, jurors randomly selected for short periods may cause havoc, she said.

What is more, jurors are not always more severe. "When a citizen has to judge someone, it is different from chatting to a neighbour, saying, ‘We must lock everyone up'. When it is for real, they find that taking a decision is hard."

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