Explained: How to settle disputes without going to court in France

We look at the new ‘amicable’ process for everyday civil claims introduced to find out-of-court solutions

A cartoon by artist Perry Taylor of a French garden, involving a humorous dispute between two neighbours.
Certain kinds of dispute must start with an ‘amicable’ process regardless of value, notably problems with neighbours
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Going to court over a civil matter is not a step to take lightly. It usually requires a lawyer (avocat) and they can be expensive.

You will need patience, too. Civil courts take a notoriously long time to reach decisions – and there is no guarantee that they will rule in your favour.

However, last year saw the introduction of a new process designed to speed up civil claims involving sums of €5,000 or less.

New ‘amicable’ process may avoid going to court

Before going to court, the parties involved are now obliged to go through a so-called ‘amicable’ process, the most common of which is taking the issue to a conciliateur de justice.

This is a volunteer who has taken an oath and whose duty is to try to reconcile the parties so that court can be avoided. 

There are also médiateurs (mediators), including médiateurs civils on court lists who can be appointed by judges to help resolve disputes.

There are ones for consumers involved in disputes with businesses too. Find a list of mediators who deal with businesses here.

A third option, called procédure participative, involves both parties engaging lawyers and signing a contract where they agree to set aside a fixed period to find a solution without going to court.

Read more: Explained: How criminal courts and jury service work in France

Which disputes can be settled this way?

Certain kinds of dispute must start with an ‘amicable’ process regardless of value, notably problems with neighbours.

These can include issues such as boundary disputes, rights of way, maintenance of shared walls, and pruning of trees, as well as nuisance complaints about smells or noises affecting people’s normal lives. 

Disputes between tenants and landlords can also be resolved in this way, as can arguments over a work contract.

Claims against shops for selling faulty goods, cases of non-payment for goods or services delivered, issues to do with the Code rural (such as who should maintain a chemin rural), and unfair dismissal that would normally go before a prud’homale (work tribunal) must also go to a conciliateur if the sums claimed are less than €5,000.

You can find contact details of a conciliateur here.

Read more: Homeowners in France at risk of being sued by subcontractors

How to start an ‘amicable’ process

In our experience, it can be tricky to get hold of one by phone. Your best bet might be to visit their base – often the local court building – and ask to be put in touch. Staff are usually friendly and helpful.

It is possible to go directly to a conciliateur by using their contact information, especially where things have not escalated to the level where you are planning to take the other party to court.

If things have reached that point, fill out a specific form (Cerfa no 15728*02) and hand it to the greffe du tribunal (clerks’ office) for a conciliateur to be appointed by court.

The form requires you to identify yourself and your adversary, and to detail the basic facts of your case. 

In theory, the system is meant to be so accessible that it can be handled by individuals without avocats, but for serious matters it is often advisable to involve a lawyer at an early stage, or at least to have the form checked by one before handing it in.

Many household insurance packages in France include cover for protection juridique, usually for at least one ‘free’ legal consultation, and it makes sense to see if you can use it at this stage.

Read more: Can I cut an overhanging branch from my neighbour’s tree?

When to use a lawyer

Conciliateurs cannot be used in family conflicts, which are covered by a juge aux affaires familiales.

Nor can they be used in disputes with the administration, including your mairie, which go to either the défenseur des droits or the tribunal administratif.

It is important to note that many people in France, before involving courts, have their avocat send a letter of mise en demeure to the other party, setting out their complaint and warning that they are intending to take the matter further.

Again, protection juridique might pay for the drafting of the letter, for which avocats charge between €80 and €150.

You can also write your own mise en demeure letter – templates are easily found on the internet – but it will probably not have the same impact.

Read more: Do Britons have a right to a translator in a French court?

What will a conciliateur do?

Once a conciliateur is appointed, he or she can ask the people concerned to attend their office to see if there is any chance of reconciliation, and visit the site of the dispute in person. 

Meetings can also take place at other suitable locations, such as the mairie or a branch of France Services, the offices set up to offer free administrative help throughout France.

People can be accompanied by lawyers, members of their family or friends.

However, the people invited by a conciliateur do not have to reply, and the conciliateur can be refused access to private property.

The conciliateur will try to find a solution that satisfies both parties, but they are not forced to accept it.

He or she will also issue a certificate at the end of the process, which can be presented to the court if a case follows.

What happens if no amicable solution is found?

Civil court cases involve lawyers presenting arguments before a judge, and the judge giving a ruling.

Increasingly, this is done behind closed doors – there is not the same concern about justice being seen to be done in France as there is in the UK.

Judgments, however, can be made public.

If parties are unhappy with the verdict – and have the money to do so – they can take the case to two levels of appeal court.

If the court awards costs, and the other side does not pay, a commissaire de justice (formerly known as a huissier de justice) can be engaged by the person owed money to have it recovered. 

They usually ask for a fee, which they add to the amount they claim from the losing party.