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Together with the police and the army, the legal system is responsible for maintaining public order based on respect for and application of the Law. The French legal system distinguishes between civil and criminal justice.

Civil law applies to dealings between private individuals (in personal matters or matters of property). In civil actions, plaintiffs may receive damages, but neither fines nor imprisonment may be imposed. Civil actions are judged by the tribunaux d'instance (tribunals) and the appeal courts. Hearings are public, except in some special cases such as divorce hearings and legal recognition of children.

Criminal law ensures that laws are enforced. Here too, cases may be heard in the tribunals or in the appeal courts. The tribunals include:- police tribunals for petty offences, which can impose fines or prison sentences of up to two months; tribunaux correctionnels for crimes such as unarmed robbery or fraud, for which penalties range from community service to a ten-year prison sentence; the cours d'assises (assizes) for serious crimes such as armed robbery and murder, for which sentences of up to thirty years' imprisonment may be imposed.

The appeal courts may re-examine the verdicts of tribunals. Hearings are public, except in the juvenile courts.

The core of the legal system is a body of civil servants, the magistrates. These may be divided into two groups.

1) sitting magistrates, whose task is to deliver verdicts. They act as judges and presiding judges in the various tribunals. Examining judges are selected from this group. These magistrates are assisted by lawyers who advise persons coming into contact with the legal system, assist them and defend them in court.

2) standing magistrates or Prosecution (le parquet). Their task is to defend public order and demand that the Law be enforced in the name of society as a whole and of the State. This group consists of public prosecutors, counsels for the prosecution and deputy public prosecutors. They are assisted by clerks, who note verdicts and sentences, and ushers, who see that they are carried out.

Magistrates are trained and selected at the national school for magistrates (Ecole nationale de la magistrature).

When a case has been referred to the courts, it is the public prosecutor who orders an investigation by the criminal investigation department (police judiciaire). He then decides whether to close the file (classer sans suite) or to bring the offender or offenders to justice. If there is doubt, he calls upon an examining judge to pursue the investigation by questioning the person or persons under suspicion (mises en examen). If the examining judge deems it necessary, a trial will take place before the appropriate tribunal.

Tribunals consist of three magistrates (a presiding judge and two assessors) and a jury of nine drawn by lots from amongst French citizens of 23 years and over (cases of terrorism are judged exclusively by professional magistrates). The person accused must receive the assistance of a lawyer.

During a trial hearing by the assizes court, the accused is questioned by the presiding judge, then the witnesses and the deputy public prosecutor's and defence speeches are heard. Finally, the tribunal withdraws to deliberate, before pronouncing the verdict and sentence.

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