WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS IN FRANCE
The Limits of “Pourvoi en Révision”
The French judiciary system, following the continental tradition, provides many detailed rules. Unlike the American system, continental procedural laws insist on the binding character of final decisions. To achieve this, continental systems protect final decisions, by a multitude of formal rules, from being challenged. Such a formalistic framework not only protects final decisions but contributes to the legitimacy of the whole criminal justice system. If so few petitions of revision succeed in France, the reason may be that these rules are so strict that it becomes virtually impossible to obtain a new trial.
The French judiciary system has two degrees of jurisdiction (trial and appellate jurisdiction), and, on top of these two, the appeal to the Supreme Court (Cour de cassation). Appeal allows a review of the case in all aspects, including facts; that is, the substance of the case. On cassation, judges only check whether formal rules have been violated.1 Despite the guarantees given by such a system, judges can always err by acquitting a guilty person or convicting an innocent person. However, only the latter qualifies as judicial error and may therefore justify a petition of revision.2 The French judiciary system is not concerned with the acquittal of guilty persons; only the fact that an innocent person is convicted for a crime that he or she did not commit is perceived as an error against which there must be a remedy at law. Thus, the revision aims at errors of fact3 in the case of final decisions. Verdicts become “final” once the time limit for an appeal has expired, or if all remedies normally available have been exhausted.