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France aims to make accessing free legal aid easier

The government pledges to almost double the number of 'France Services' branches to increase legal aid access for people living in rural areas

A branch of France Services is promised within 30 minutes of each citizen by 2022, although its agents cannot give personal advice Pic: goodluz / Shutterstock

Accessing free legal advice could become simpler next year if the government keeps a promise to dramatically boost the number of France Services branches. 

France Services is a government-run agency which was set up as a result of the gilets jaunes protests in 2018 and 2019. 

It has some 1,300 branches, with 2,500 planned by the end of 2022, meaning there should be a branch within 30 minutes of each citizen.  

The offices are usually housed in existing help centres, such as centres sociaux et culturels.  

While agents cannot give personal advice, they can help people find reliable websites, guide you through online forms for tax declarations and grant applications, and sketch out a map for resolving legal difficulties, such as possible neighbour disputes or contesting a speeding ticket. 

For more complex legal problems, you might be referred to another service, called Point Justice, run by the justice ministry. 

Its main gateway is the justice.fr website, which also offers advice relating to nationality and living as a foreigner in France. 

You can call the service’s free phone number, 3039, or find the nearest justice point in your department.

Easier access to justice for rural people

Callers can receive legal advice including details in some departments of how to set up one free consultation with an avocat (lawyer). 

This offer is not universal, but in Charente, for example, an avocat visits most towns once a month and gives consultations, without appointments, for three hours.  

It was set up before the Point Justice system through the local ordre des avocats (bar association) to counter fears that lawyers’ offices were being concentrated in large towns and cities, making them inaccessible for many people. 

Point Justice might also recommend the conciliateur system, which is now a required first step for most small civil claims. 

While a lawyer can handle the conciliateur hearing and process for you, the system is designed so that engaging one is not necessary.  

Talk to a legal expert on the phone

Notaires, who handle family matters, wills and property sales, also bring services to isolated areas, but not pro bono.  

Instead, they have set up a payphone service, 0892 011 012, billed at €0.80 a minute, plus the cost of the call.  

It promises, through a menu of questions and answers, to give people a clear idea of what the legal problem is, and possible solutions, within 10 minutes. 

Where this is not possible, callers are directed to a local notaire’s office specialising in the matter.  They will answer questions, for example, on inheritance, property and family rights.

Regional chambres de notaires also sometimes organise stands at events such as wedding, agriculture and property trade fairs, where free advice might be given.  

They occasionally organise weekends too, where notaire volunteers (often young members of the profession) give free advice. 

For victims of crime, Fédération France Victimes oversees 130 local associations and claims to have 1,500 trained staff to help victims in their dealings with police officers, avocats, insurers, and medical and social services.  

It can be accessed through a free telephone number, 116 006, between 9:00 and 19:00. Outside of these hours, callers are able to leave a message. 

Alternatively, an email service (victims@francevictimes.fr) will try to direct people to local agencies or associations that can help. 

Get free help from a student

If you live in or near a university city with a law faculty, another option for free advice is to make use of the legal clinics set up to give students practical experience. 

After a number of local initiatives, their method of functioning has now been standardised throughout France. 

Working in pairs, under the supervision of a lawyer or legal academic, students give free consultations of between 30 minutes and an hour. 

They study the problem, then give a second consultation, usually a month later, offering possible solutions and an explanation of your rights. 

Their advice cannot be relied on in court, but it can help narrow down options when trying to find a solution to legal problems.

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