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France on the threshold of the 20th century /
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The civil justice system

The civil justice system

The organization of the courts

France has distinguished between executive, legislative and judicial power since the time of Montesquieu. The revolutionaries of 1789 demanded a court system that was "neither bought, nor paid, nor hereditary, by the people and for the people" (J. Michelet). By the threshold of the twentieth century-not including administrative and commercial courts-France's civil and criminal court system had a pyramid-shaped structure, whereas military law remained almost completely isolated.

Although there was a shared civil and criminal court system, civil law was assigned to lower-level magistrates, to district courts in for cases involving droit commun, and to twenty-seven courts of appeal. Police courts, magistrates' courts, courts of appeal and courts of assize handled criminal justice.

Police courts processed violations, whereas mid-level crimes were handled by magistrates' courts. Courts of appeal dealt with fines that were appealed, as well as indictments handed down by courts of assize. The courts of assize, which consisted of a jury and three judges, decided cases involving felonies, as well as certain political crimes and violation of the press laws.

The Court of Cassation, the highest civil court

The Court of Cassation was positioned at the top of the judicial hierarchy by a senatus consultum of 16 Thermidor Year X and another of 28 Floréal Year XII. It also became the French magistrates' council under the law of 30 August 1883. In principle, it may not rule on the merits even if it was established "to uphold the sound and uniform application of the laws." The edict of 15 January 1826 divided it into three chambers. The Chamber of Petitions rules on the eligibility of civil appeals, on electoral law, and cases involving the abuse of authority by either judges or courts. The Civil Chamber rules on civil matters and in cases of appeals against disciplinary decisions. The Criminal Chamber hears all levels of criminal cases (felonies, crimes and misdemeanors), appeals in the interest of the law, and requests for review.


Justice of the peace

The judges of the Criminal Chamber

The Grand Chamber of the Court of Cassation circa 1900