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French Law: Home

This resource guide is meant to assist students in researching French law.. Additional materials are available; please feel free to stop by the reference desk for assistance.

Introduction to French law

Civil law systems, also called continental or Romano-Germanic legal systems, are found on all continents and cover about 60% of the world. They are based on concepts, categories, and rules derived from Roman law, with some influence of canon law, sometimes largely supplemented or modified by local custom or culture. The civil law tradition, though secularized over the centuries and placing more focus on individual freedom, promotes cooperation between human beings.

The law of France is a civil law legal system; the French legal system is based wholly on written Civil law. Civil law legal systems are greatly based on a Code of Law. The foundation of the French legal system is the Napoleonic code or Civil code which encapsulated the rights and obligations of citizens, and laws of contract, property, inheritance, and so forth. The Civil code persists as the foundation of French law to the present. In scholarly terms, French law can be divided into two divisions: private law (or "droit prive'") and public law ("droit public"). French private law governs private individuals and private bodies. Whereas, French public law governs the state and public bodies. 

On the other hand, Common law legal systems are greatly based on precedent. The common law tradition emerged in England during the Middle Ages and was applied within British colonies. The Common law is generally not codified meaning there is no thorough compilation of legal rules and statutes. While Common law jurisdictions rely on some scattered statutes, which are legislative decisions, it is largely based on precedent, meaning the judicial decisions that have already been made in similar cases. These precedents are maintained over time in court records and documented in collections of case law known as yearbooks and reports. The precedents to be applied in the decision of each new case are determined by the presiding judge. As a result, judges have an enormous role in shaping American and British law. 

Louisiana is the only Civil law jurisdiction in the United States. Louisiana gets its Civil law legal system from its colonial past as a possession of two Civil law countries, Spain and France. It may be better to think of Louisiana's legal system as a hybrid consisting of both Civil and Common law influences. Specifically, Louisiana's private law or substantive law between private parties, principally contracts and torts is based on French and Spanish Civil law as well as Roman law with some Common law influences. Louisiana's criminal law is directly based on United States' Common law. Louisiana's administrative law is influenced by the administrative law of the United States' federal government. Louisiana civil procedure law is consistent with United States Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Private Law (le droit prive)

Private law is the basic law of France. It is carried out by the judicial courts. There are two judicial avenues: (1) those dealing with civil litigation; and (2) those dealing with criminal litigation. 

Civil litigation regarding private individuals is administered by a local court called the Tribunal d'Instance, or by a regional or departmental court called the Tribunal de Grande Instance depending on the importance of the case. Commercial and business law is administered via the Tribunaux de commerce. These are known as "first degree courts." 

Appeals are heard in a Cour d'Appel or Court of Appeal, a "second degree court". In France, there is a fundamental right of appeal in all cases. In exceptional circumstances, judgments of the Appeal Court can be contested at the highest level, the Cour de Cassation, the French Supreme Court in matters of private law.

Everyday offences and small criminal matters are generally dealt with either by a Juge de proximité (a local magistrate) or a Tribunal de Police (police court); more serious matters will be referred to the Tribunal Correctionnel, the criminal law equivalent of the Tribunal de Grande Instance. The most serious criminal offences, notably murder and rape, will be referred to a Cour d'Assises, or Assize court, where they will tried by jury.

Public Law (le droit public)

Complaints or litigation concerning public officials in the exercise of their office are heard in Tribunaux Administratifs, or Administrative Courts. For example, universities or public academic institutions are regularly taken to court over claimed irregularities in the organization of exams. As in the private law system, appeals can be lodged, in this case with the Cour administratif d'appel, or Administrative appeals court. The highest echelon, the Supreme Court for public law, is the Conseil d'Etat, or Council of State, the body ultimately responsible for determining the legality of administrative measures.

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