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A French cour d'assises or Assize Court is a criminal trial court with original and appellate limited jurisdiction to hear cases involving defendants accused of major felonies or indictable offences, or crimes in French, and one of the few to be decided by jury trial.
Under French law, a crime is any criminal act punishable by over 10 years of prison, including murder and rape. (The English word "crime" is "infraction" in French legal terminology). In the past, the cour d'assises could also sentence convicted criminals to the death penalty for certain crimes, but the death penalty was abolished in France in 1981.
Cases are tried by a jury of six jurors and a panel of three active judges, that is, one judge-in-charge (called "president" of the court) and two associate judges (assesseurs), on first hearing, and a jury of nine jurors and a panel of three active judges on appeal. Lists of eligible jurors are put together at random from the list of registered voters, but both the prosecution and defense have the right to peremptory challenge and can refuse a juror without stating a reason.
Special procedures exist for the following categories of crimes and suspects:
- Felonies committed by teenagers 16 years or older are tried in a special Juvenile Assize Court (Cour d'Assises des Mineurs)
- Felonies such as terrorism or major illicit drug trafficking, which are tried in a special solemn proceeding by bench trial sitting 7 active justices on first hearing and 9 on appeal, without jurors. In such cases a simple majority is needed to convict, instead of two thirds majority in jury trial.
The procedure before the Court of Assize is oral: defendants and witnesses are to give their testimonies before the court. Witnesses and their close relatives cannot be put under oath, since doing so could force them into self-incrimination (or incrimination of a relative).
At the end of the trial, the judges and jurors retreat. They first decide guilt by answering a series of questions—e.g., "Did X murder Y?", "Did X premeditate the murder?" If a conviction is obtained, they then rule on the appropriate penalty. During this procedure, judges and jurors have equal positions on questions of facts, while judges decide on questions of procedure. Judges and jurors have also equal positions on sentencing.
Appellate Court of Assize
Every département in France has its own Assize court. In the past, their verdicts could not be appealed to the court of appeal, and prior to 2001, could only be appealed to the French Court of Cassation, which would review the case on points of procedure and law alone. When reversed, which was uncommon except for the death penalty, the Court would refer the de novo trial to another Assize court.
One argument in favor of this practice was that allowing appeals to be made to professional judges after a verdict had been rendered by a popular jury would in essence deny popular sovereignty. Since 2001, however, Assize court verdicts may be appealed on point of fact and sentence to another county's Assize court, chosen by the French Supreme Court and to be heard before a larger jury. The case is then fully retried. Appeals to the Supreme Court are still possible on points of law and procedure as the jury trials of an Assize court would not be the proper venue to hear them.
- Serge Guinchard, André Varinard and Thierry Debard, Institutions juridictionnelles (= Judicials institutions), Paris, Dalloz editor, 11th edition, 2011.
- Serge Guinchard and Jacques Buisson, Criminal procedural law, Paris, Lexisnexis editor, 7th edition, 2011.