Why police custody rules must change in France

Critics say the changes will ‘damage investigations’ but proponents say it will make ‘statements taken from people in custody more solid’

The new law means that someone in police custody will not be able to be questioned without a lawyer present
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France is making changes to its custody and questioning rules - including new rights for people being detained - to bring it in line with European law, after years of increasingly-severe warnings.

The new rules will come into force from July 1.

What are the changes?

  • Anyone in police custody must have a lawyer present at all questioning sessions and hearings. 

  • If a lawyer is not present, no questioning can take place. 

  • If the appointed lawyer is unable to show up within two hours, or the person has no lawyer, the state must provide one.

This is in contrast to the existing law, which has been in place since 2011. This states that anyone in police custody can request a lawyer for all questioning sessions, but their presence is not mandatory.

The new rule has some exceptions. For example, a public prosecutor can state that questioning can go ahead without a lawyer if this would “avoid a situation likely to seriously compromise criminal proceedings, or to prevent serious harm to the life, liberty or physical integrity of a person”.

Other changes include:

  • The person in police custody can notify "any person they choose" of their situation

  • The person they choose can request a medical examination for the person in custody

Until now, the person in custody could only notify their employer and a close relative or someone they live with, limited to their parents, grandparents, children, or siblings.

Why is France making these changes now?

France must make the changes to comply with European Union law, with a directive from October 22, 2013 stating that anyone in police custody must be assisted by a lawyer. 

Until now, France had not translated this directive into its own national law. 

As such, the European Commission has formally warned the French government to comply four times. Firstly, in 2016, then in 2021, and again - more severely - in 2023. It warned then that France had two months to comply.

Criticisms from police

The changes have not been popular with some police representatives.

Eric Henry, spokesperson for police union Alliance, said that the reform "continues to unbalance the rights of suspects and investigators". 

“Being obliged to wait for the lawyer to come…with no possibility for the investigating officer to carry out a hearing or other act, is very damaging for the effectiveness of the investigation,” he said to FranceInfo.

He added that giving the person in custody the right to inform a friend or colleague that they are in custody presents “a heightened risk of collusion and loss of evidence”.

This third party will also need to be checked for any evidence of “complicity, loss of evidence, or pressure on witnesses or victims”, warned Jean-Paul Mégret, number two at the Independent Union of Police Commissioners. 

“If the lawyer does not attend, the police will no longer be able to do anything,” he added. “The lawyer will be able to block the police custody system.”

Read also: Police ID checks in France and foreign documents explained 
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Response from legal profession

The changes have, in contrast, been largely welcomed by representatives of the legal professions.

"There is no reason why France should not be brought into line with European standards for police custody, in order to guarantee the rights of the defence,” said Kim Reuflet, president of the Syndicat de la magistrature (SM).

“Making statements in the presence of a lawyer better protects people from pressure, particularly those who have never been in police custody. It makes the statements taken more solid, which is in the interests of the procedure.”

She said that the rules will not delay investigations, as they allow for waivers where necessary.

“Our presence is not an obstacle to uncovering the truth or blocking the investigation,” said Thomas Fourrey, a member of the Syndicat des avocats de France (SAF). "Until now, we tried to get into police custody as quickly as possible when we were called. So there was pressure on us: the client was left on their own if we couldn't get there.

“With this reform, we have more room for manoeuvre, because if we can't go, a court-appointed lawyer must be called in.”

The law would mean that the rights of “people in police custody…are better respected”, he said.