All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Law in inaction

French Senator Charles Humbert and his lawyer ...Image via Wikipedia
You are sitting in a cell at the gendarmerie barracks. You are in garde a vue....detention.

You are sitting there because when the gendarme leapt out of his unmarked car to give you a speeding ticket you called him something uncomplimentary......and while this was something that the average British policeman would regard as mere vulgar abuse, the gendarme called it 'outrage'. An offence.
Given the sensitive nature of the forces of law and order in France they could probably interpret
'It's a fair cop, gov'
 as some involved insult to their probity so whatever you said you were on a hiding to nothing from the minute you opened your mouth.

You also bit the officer's bare arm when he countered your reluctance to accompany him to the station by placing your neck in a stranglehold so tight that you could not breath.
This attempt at survival was qualified as 'rebellion' - another offence - and while you cool your heels the gendarme is busy booking a couple of weeks off sick to recover from your attentions.

At last...the door opens and you are escorted to the adjutant's office.
He proposes to take your statement.
Not being familiar with French police and legal practice and given the misunderstandings that have already arisen, you ask for a lawyer.
The adjutant smiles.
'They're on strike.'

Witnessing you foaming at the mouth at this news, the arresting officer mentally adds rabies to the list of tests he will require.

Lawyers being on strike is a strange phenomenon, but, as you will have guessed, it involves money.
Most things about lawyers do.

In this case, the duty lawyers who are supposed to attend gendarmerie barracks and Hotels de Police at two hours notice in order to assist the involuntary guests of these establishments are on strike because they have not been paid  for the last two and a half months.
Not as in 'not paid by their clients' but as in 'not paid by the government' who are responsible for coughing up.

Mark you, as long as you keep your mouth shut until you get to court you might be better off without some of the lawyers you might encounter.

Recently one bright spark saw fit to defend two youths caught in possession of a miniscule amount of pot by advancing the argument that they were unable to remember anything about the circumstances in which the packet came into their possession as long use of pot had affected their memories.

I think even
'It's a fair cop, gov'
might have had more favourable results.

I had not long been in France when I read that lawyers were on strike and coming from a U.K. background it seemed incredible...after all, as a lawyer in independent practice, if you don't work you don't drink.

This was before I had grasped the astronomic sums required even by lawyers at the bottom of the food chain in France. They can afford to strike without reducing their intake of Romanee-Conti.
What one of the local hacks will want for a simple matter would enable you to hire a QC and two juniors with unlimited refreshers....and you're by no means sure he will do a good job.
They're not all Maitre Eolas.

Quite apart from his or her level of interest and competence there is always the local factor to take into anyone important involved?
If so, you will find that your lawyer's attention is more firmly fixed on not giving offence in that quarter than on any aspect of the case for his client.....the one that's paying him an arm and a leg.
A client is a client, but a local bigwig is forever.

They claim that their fees are so high because seventy per cent of it goes on keeping their business running...
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.
In the provinces at least they all seem to inhabit seedy premises at the top of ancient buildings which don't have lifts.

One accident compensation specialist of my acquaintance regularly has clients with parts of their anatomy encased in plaster bumping up three flights of stairs on their backsides to reach his office. Both he and they take this for granted.

When my leg was in plaster my lawyer was most startled to be summoned downstairs to have our discussion in the cafe on the ground floor of the building...this had never happened to him before.
Given his unsatisfactory performance it's unlikely to happen to him again.

At the successful conclusion of another case, I was startled to receive telephone call from the lawyer who had handled it.
Bearing in mind that he had demanded money upfront before even starting the case I was even more startled to learn that he was reminding me of what a good job he had done and suggesting a further backhander.
My counter suggestion that he write to me with the details met with an aggrieved silence.
After all, in the conduct of his own affairs he follows the advice he gives his clients.
Sign nothing.

In East Anglia years ago there was an alternative version of the traditional crop rotation.
No longer 'wheat, barley, turnips and clover', but, given the wealth of the farmers concerned
'Barley, barley and a Mediterranean cruise.'
I can only imagine that something similar applies to French lawyers.......
'Boundary dispute, tax dispute and off to Thailand for a month on the proceeds.'

Still, when the lawyers are on strike, the cases reported have more savour and the one that sticks in my memory is the one I read about all that time ago when just arrived in France, in an unreconsctructed rural area.

It was a traffic offence. Drunken driving. A gentleman of a certain age.

Without benefit of representation the defendant rose to present his case to the President of the tribunal.
He utterly denied the offence.
What had happened was this.

He had come in from milking the cows and had had a glass of gnole (home distilled eau de vie at several times the proof of the commercial stuff).
As usual.
He had done a few other outside jobs and come in for breakfast, with a litre of (vin) rouge.
As usual.
He had done another few jobs and then met a friend in the bar to talk about selling some ducks. He had had a few beers.
As usual.
He's gone home for lunch, with another litre of rouge.
As usual.

Then something unusual happened. His son in law telephoned him to announce that his wife had given birth to their first child.
The defendant's first grandchild.
He had split a bottle of champagne with his wife to celebrate.
He had dropped in at the bar to celebrate with the boys. A few beers.
He had then driven to the hospital in the local town and split another bottle of champagne with the proud the baby was excluded from this remains a mystery...before driving home.

It was while driving the wrong way down a one way street that he had met the municipal police car coming up. It was all beginning to sound like Gerard Hoffnung's address to the Oxford Union in 1958.

The officers took it upon themselves to breathalyse him. He was multiple times over the limit.

How, asked the President, did he explain this?

Simple. As M. le President might imagine he was somewhat emotional at the birth of his first grandchild and when the police presented him with the tube he had taken breath several times while blowing into it.
Five times in fact and as M. le President would observe, if he divided the results presented by the police by five he, M. le President ,would note that the answer arrived at was just under the limit.

Therefore he was not guilty.

He was awarded points off his licence and a recommendation to let his wife drive him to the hospital for the birth of the next grandchild, and, knowing that particular court, I expect he just nipped round to the back office and handed over the folding stuff to have the judgement expunged from the computer records..

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  1. Hello:
    Clearly, the machinations of the French legal system are at once both complex and simple. Complicated beyond all reasoning if one is without contacts or money,whilst totally straightforward given the right person to pull the right strings and several wads of euros to ease the process. And, so it is in Hungary with Forints in place of the Euros but with the addition of 'Salata Kocsi' [salad vans, so called because of their green colour] which whisk offenders of whatever the perceived 'crime' may be from the streets. Action first, talk later here!!

  2. Jane and Lance Hattatt, sounds like the style of the CRS...bash first and ask questions of those still alive later...


    How on earth am I supposed to finish my mid summer blog post when you keep lobbing up more new ones for me to read like this?!!

    First you bugger off for weeks on end and give us all a well earned break from following you, then you suddenly appear out of the jungle again and BAMMM!!! We get instantly buried in a deluge of new posts!

    Thought you said you had a massive pile of washing and ironing to do? Yeaah Rright…Own up…who’d you do a deal with then? …the postmans wife?!

    Can’t you go chase parrots for a week…or have a bit of cruel dark fun blocking up all those holes the Parakeets make in the telegraph poles out there, just so you can sit back and watch their panicked confusions as they return home from another daily mission…?

    Or simply just have a go at breathing in and out like everyone else does for a day or so?

    Jeeeze! I’ll have to trapes back later with my big old bag of dictionary’s and a reading glass, an try an work my way through this one then.

  4. Bish Bosh Bash...I know you're in there, Phil....come out with your finished blog post because I've emerged from the jungle...and where is it?

    You haven't even been ironing....

  5. The law is an ass but plainly it is better to be a jockey than the pooper-scooper trailing behind...

  6. The best way to deal with the French justice is system is to have as little to do with it as possible. The rapport qualité prix is dismal.

  7. Steve, that's super! I shall borrow it, with your permission and always on the understanding that I acknowledge the author.
    Still giggling at the image it conjours up...

    Sarah, how depressingly true....

  8. I've so far escaped all contact with French law other than the notaire for the signing of the acte de vente, but I consider myself duly warned, thanks, Fly. I wonder how the French police are feeling about the recent critical report from the French audit office? Not complementary at all....

  9. Perpetua, I can assure you that I have done everything possible to avoid contact with french law...and having made contact fully understand the French preference for paying up rather than standing their ground.
    There's no ground to stand on.

    The UMP are busy rubbishing the cour des comptes, trying to bury the message that a whole lot of money has been spent on the forces of order without very much order wonder the Interior Minister is having a heart bypass operation - he probably saw a leaked copy of the report ahead of time!

  10. And I thought Turkish law was bad!
    Great post Fly!

    Are you still having Blogger comments problems? I am and don't get what's happening. If I use IE I can't leave comments with my google name and it keeps sending me back to google to log in. I can however comment if I use Firefox...but today I can't actually get into any blogs with Firefox.

    And to make me even more confused, I now notice that my username is here on this comment and I'm using IE...are you still with me? Hmm probably not...never mind :-)

  11. Ayak, drawn from experience I could have lived without experiencing!

    I was about to reply to your comment saying that, fingers crossed, blogger was behaving itself and then couldn't get through to it!
    It took three attempts!

  12. All I can say is I am much relieved I didn't have to go to court when I was in France. Jurisprudence is ridiculous enough in this country -- especially in the French part.

  13. take the positive attitude (if there is one) at least it prepared me for the Costa Rican legal system in which there is more is easier to know whom to bribe.

  14. As long as I am reading your story, I am there. You paint your word pictures so realistically. Perfect vignettes of life in a rural French town.

    My only question is, why is the proud papa not dead of alcohol poisoning?

  15. Melody, to judge by the longevity in these villages at that time I can only think that they were pickled alive.

  16. Oh god that takes me back to the days when I had to accompany Mr Angry to his frequent appointments with various lawyers. I was the interpreter and had to be very 'creative' in order to avoid an undiplomatic incident. My favourite episode involved a notaire describing said angry person as a 'complete and utter imbecile with whom he wanted no further contact', I translated this as 'I'm afraid that he can do no more and suggests you save your money'.
    Happy days...

  17. Mouse, I remember and shudder simultaneously thinking of the interpretation sessions...I am not creative.

  18. Stonishing Stuff!

    I would never have believed such a tale had I not read it here in the first place. What a racket!

    “A client is a client, but a local bigwig is forever.” Loved this one. How so apt as well.

    “how the baby was excluded from this remains a mystery.” Yet another one that made me chuckle out loud. Brilliant turn of phrase Fly.

  19. Bish Bosh Bash, I bet the baby grows up traumatised....