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France - Legal System
France has several different types of courts, depending upon the type of case that is being heard. There are several levels of civil courts, including the ‘tribunal d’instance’ which hears cases for small claims of not more than €5000, businesses may attend an ‘tribunal de commerce’, problems with social security are heard at a ‘tribunal de sécurité sociale’, cases which are connected to adoptions and divorces are heard in a ‘tribunal de grande instance’ and there is the ‘conseil de prud’hommes’ for labour problems.
Criminal cases might be heard in a ‘tribunal de police’ if it is a minor offence such as a parking or traffic offence, a ‘tribunal correctionel’ for more serious cases or a ‘cour d’assises’ for high profile serious crimes. The ‘cours d’appel’ is the appeal court and then cases can even go on to be heard in the ‘cour de cassation’ at the supreme court.
You may not need a lawyer when you are in France but this will depend upon the type of case that is involved. A lawyer or barrister is known as an ‘avocat’ but you are able to represent yourself if you speak good French and your case is a civil one being heard in a ‘tribunal d’instance’. If your case is being heard in a ‘tribunal de grande instance’ you will need a lawyer. If you just need legal advice you can go to a ‘conseil juridique et fiscal’ which is the equivalent of a British solicitor. This type of legal representative can help with cases in some of the courts if you do not want to represent yourself. If you need a lawyer who speaks English you can usually obtain a list from your embassy.
The courts employ bailiffs (huissier) in order to deal with property seizures, writs, summonses and statements. He can produce reports which may need to be used at a later date in court cases such as taking statements from witnesses after an accident.
France also has public notaries, which specialise in some of the work often carried out by solicitors in the UK. A notary is a public official who is overseen by the ‘Chambre des Notaires’ and deals with property matters, matrimonial documentation and other documentation which needs to be verified as authentic. The notary does not deal with any criminal matters. Property transfers can only be dealt with by a notary and you can also go to them for advice on business and tax matters.
Those who are resident in France are entitled to a consultation with a lawyer free of charge and you can get information on this from your local ‘tribunal de grande instance’. Legal aid is also available if you are an EU citizen or regularly spend time in France and only have a low income.
If you are charged with a crime in France you are innocent until proven guilty and you do not have to say anything to the police or the courts if you do not want to. Within 3 hours of your arrest you are entitled to see a lawyer and if you are under investigation by the authorities for anything you must be informed in writing.
French law requires individuals to keep documentation for a certain amount of time and this varies depending upon the document. Bills from hotels and restaurants must be kept for six months, telephone bills should be kept for a year while tax bills need to be kept for a period of four years. Paperwork relating to insurance and mortgages needs to be kept for ten years and school reports should be kept for 18 years. You are required to keep the receipts for appliances and other items for as long as you have them and you are legally obliged to keep medical records, ID cards and savings account books, among other things, for life.
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