Since 2004, several comprehensive laws regarding domestic violence in France have been enacted, amplifying the definition of behaviors considered abuse, strengthening the rights of victims to protection, and mandating the punishment of offenders. Successive governments have promised further action in this direction, and a few new legal measures were enacted in 2020. Although adherence to the existing laws by the authorities falls way short of what is needed, strict compliance with legal procedures on the part of the complainant must be observed.
Pressing a charge (Porter plainte)
If you decide to invoke your legal rights and press an official charge (porter plainte) which will automatically trigger a legal procedure, below is a brief summary of the main steps to be taken.
- Go to any police station (commissariat — or gendarmerie if in the provinces). Although theoretically, It does NOT have to be the one in your neighborhood, your case will move more swiftly if you do it there. A police officer is legally obliged to hear your complaint and draft a report (procès verbal) which will be read aloud to you and which you both must sign. If the officer tries to refuse, refer to Article 15-3 of the Code de Procédure Pénal in which that obligation is clearly stated. Be sure to get a receipt for this paper, and ask for a copy of what has been written. Take the name of the police agent with whom you have dealt. If you do not speak fluent French, find someone who does, to accompany you to the commissariat. There is not always a translator on hand. If the police person you encounter does not appear to be cooperative, leave and go to another commissariat. Mandatory training of police officers in an understanding of domestic violence now exists, at least so that there is one trained officer in each commissariat.
As alternatives to the police you can either:
- Send a complaint by mail to the General Prosecutor (Procureur Général) at the Tribunal de Grande Instance (the main courthouse) associated with the city or département in which you live
- Go to a lawyer and have him/her draw up your report and forward it to the appropriate authorities. If your resources are insufficient, you can apply to the Tribunal de Grande Instance for legal aid (see below)
2. If you have been physically harmed, ask the police for an official request (réquisition) to be examined by a doctor from the Urgences Médico-Judiciares (U.M.J) department of the hospital in your area which has this department. In Paris this service is located at the Hotel Dieu hospital, Place Notre Dame (01 42 34 86 78) . Whether you work or not, the practitioner will draw up a certificate assessing the degree of physical harm or psychological damage using as a measurement the number of days of Temporary Incapacity to Work (Incapacité Temporaire de Travail- I.T.T.). Be sure to make and keep safe a copy or copies of this very important certificate!!
- Note: Your own doctor’s certificate will have far less legal weight than this official assessment in a case where you might undertake a legal procedure later, either in civil or criminal court.
Filing a declaration (Main Courante).
If you do not wish to file an official complaint which will obligatorily lead to a legal procedure, it is nevertheless advisable to have a police agent take down your declaration of abuse and enter it into a “daybook” as proof that an incident has occurred. This is called a Main Courante, and while it has no legal weight per se, it can show the authorities as well as perpetrator that you are taking action on your own behalf. However, in keeping with the government’s stated desire to intensify prosecution of abusers, the number of allowable main courantes against one person is now being limited, and in some French départements, will lead automatically to legal follow-up.
Legal Follow-up to the official complaint
Details on the multiplicity of follow-up legal procedures are beyond the scope of this summary. However, below is a list of measures which might result, depending on the seriousness of the abuse. See this official French government website for details:
- On a criminal level
For the offender: Territorial limitations, prohibition of certain premises, restriction of contact with certain persons, mandatory contribution to family expenses, eviction of the offender from the home; placement of the offender under judicial control including incarceration.
For the victim: detailed description of the concrete facts involving the abuse in all declarations and depositions made to legal institutions or persons.
- On a civil level
For the victim: authorization for the victim to leave the family residence without being accused of abandonment.
Regarding children and occupation of the home: Intervention by judicial services
If couple is married: official filing for divorce or legal separation with the help of a lawyer.
It needs to be noted that for now (2022) the justice system in France is quite lax when it comes to sanctioning perpetrators. This fact is repeatedly written up in the press, but to little avail, there being a paucity of prisons where offenders could be sent!
Finding a Lawyer
Once you press charges, the legal system is engaged, and if you maintain your complaint, you will need a lawyer to represent/defend you, either in civil court or in criminal court depending on the seriousness of the violence you have sustained.
In Paris, lawyers’ fees can be hefty, ranging from 250-600 € per hour for a divorce. Factors such as the complexity of the case, the amount of research necessary, the “fame” of the lawyer, the financial situation of the client and more will affect the cost. Generally, when you phone a lawyer, he or she will give you 15-20 minutes free to explain your situation. The next step would be an initial consultation — usually for a flat fee. Thereafter, should you decide to hire that person, you must insist on obtaining a Convention d’Honoraires — a contract signed by both parties in which the lawyer spells out the work he or she will do, and the predicted costs. Flee from any lawyer who refuses to submit to this legal obligation. Some lawyers are very reactive and will rapidly get back to you by phone or email when you contact them. Others delay for weeks or months, adding to the distress of an abuse victim. The best advice we can give you is to get recommendations from former clients — preferably other abuse victims — not from friends or other lawyers. We have compiled a short list of recommended professionals which we will share upon request.
Requesting Legal Aid (Aide Juridictionnelle)
If you earn very little money, have no or limited resources and are in France legally, you may be eligible for some level of legal aid from the state which would cover wholly or partially your legal expenses (lawyers, bailiffs, notaries etc.). A few forms, available online, need to be filled out and taken to the Tribunal de Grande Instance where you live or where your case is under review. See http://vosdroits.service-public.fr/particuliers/R1444.xhtml. Your application will be examined after which you will be notified as to the result. If it is positive and you do not have a lawyer who will accept the fees paid by Legal Aid, the court will assign you one. Again, contact us by email to get names, or you can try to find one through https://www.jetrouvemonavocat.fr/; Hot Line: 01.44.32.49.01.
Pending Legislation (2020)
- Mandatory training of judges, magistrates, police offers and social workers enabling them to recognize signs of psychological abuse and better detect the manipulation of abusers
- Enrollment of abusers at their own expense in programs destined to make them recognize their own contributions to the situation. This has probably not been widely implemented.