Wednesday, 9 April 2014

French Legal Training - Across the Channel

By Corentin Dolivet
Training as a Lawyer in France
In order to become a lawyer (avocat) in France, one must:
  • Study law for at least four years;
  • Pass the CRFPA exam, in order to enter one of the 15 Avocats’ French schools;
  • Attend one semester of professional training, including ethics’ courses and management classes;
  • Take a one semester internship related to Law but not within a practice;
  • Take a one semester internship in a practice;
  • Pass the final test; and finally
  • Register in one of the Courts of Appeal of France as a practicing avocat
And Voila!

Training Across the English Channel
As a trainee lawyer, I was given the opportunity to take my final internship in another Member State of the European Union - in my case, the UK. This allows me to experience the way our work is carried on in another country under a different set of rules, proceedings, influenced by different cultures and backgrounds and facing different problems.

Those were precisely the barriers I was afraid I would not to be able to traverse; however, London-based Wainwright & Cummins Solicitors LLP has given me the opportunity to experience those differences within its Family Law Department for approximately one month so far. Now is a good time to evaluate my experience!

Culture and Language
You will already be aware that France and England do not share the same legal system. These countries rely on very different legal legacies and cultures, namely civil law and common law. Even though the European Union tends to harmonise some of our proceedings, the gap remains palpable in the very way the law is created, applied and enforced.

Fundamental principles appear very similar when considered broadly; however, the systems run on different logics. And how could it be different, given two thousand years of history: a legal system is nothing but an acceptance of rules by a given population, transmitted from one generation to another.
My training in England takes me to many legal institutions. These visits make me even more aware of the differences with the French system. To give you a few examples:
  • In criminal proceedings in England, a statement bears significant weight, whereas in France, parties are not expected to make any oath, since it is one of the fundamental rights for the accused not to incriminate themselves;
  • In France, civil trials and family matters are often dealt in chambers or in short hearings, without hearing any testimonies except the submissions of the Avocats;
  • In England, it is possible for a civil court to hold Fact and Findings Hearings, in order to assess the probability of events for the purpose of the proceedings; whereas in France, judges rely on the facts gathered and presented by the parties for one part, and on the rules of admissibility, presumptions and proof; and
  • It is possible for a judge in England to give their judgment "on the chair", unlike in France, where the judgment in civil proceedings can sometimes be given weeks afterwards, even sometimes by simply leaving it for the parties at the Court.
These customs, rules and practices form a new language of its own. Each element (I have chosen the list of elements on purpose) is linked to the other and is logically devoid of any sense when taken on its own.

I now believe that it would have been impossible to understand and embrace the English legal system looking at it piece by piece. For the English legal system to demonstrate its logic, it is necessary to experience it as a whole, to understand the subtleties each piece holds in the English language as well.

Wainwright and Cummins Solicitors
I had the pleasure to meet most of the solicitors working within the office, and currently work in the Family Department, which focuses primarily on Public Law Children cases. My experience in that field was limited to the opposing side of this practice, as I previously worked and studied alongside the future French magistrates.

In France, specific judges focus on children’s matters, whether the matter is civil (endangered children) or criminal (delinquent children). These judges handle all cases related to minors as it is accepted that children committing crimes are to be treated as endangered, with the aim being to rehabilitate them as much cases as possible. These judges carry a very proactive role, instructing and judging at the same time, leaving less room for the avocat to intervene. Still, local barreau are adapting and avocats have started specialising in defending minors’ interests.

I have had the opportunity at Wainwright & Cummins to witness the crucial role solicitors have during proceedings. My experience is an invaluable asset to build upon in the future if I am to continue practicing Family Law.

In France, solicitors would never have the power to agree the schedule, timetable and court orders for the best interests of the parties. Even though contested hearings remain frequent, focusing only on the points solicitors were not able to agree is essential, as is constantly keeping in mind the best interests of the child.

Being able to understand and witness the activity of the solicitor in detail was all thanks to the limitless patience and teaching skills of the members of the Family department at Wainwright & Cummins, who have allowed me to assist them in cases and attend to as many hearings as possible. They made me aware of the particular bond of trust that Family matters are likely to create between solicitors and their clients and relatives.

The Split Profession
Among the many mysteries of the English legal profession is the split between barristers and solicitors. It is interesting to note that in France, there remains a controversial split in the management of properties and authenticating legal instruments, carried out by the Notaires. However, apart of those specific fields of practice, in recent decades the numerous legal professions (Avoués, Agrées près les Tribunaux de commerce, Conseils juridiques) in France have merged into the now massive order of the Avocats.

The avocat in France is expected to meet clients, receive instructions, build up their case, prepare trials and advocate in court. It is therefore theoretically possible for an avocat to manage and handle a case from beginning to end, and that is the daily reality of most general practitioners who choose to focus on advocacy itself.

Even in France most avocats will specialise and therefore more or less take the role of either a
barrister or a solicitor, allowing lawyers in England to sharpen their skills far more efficiently, the main differences lie in the relationship those two professions establish with their clients. Clients do not expect the same advice, the same skills, as lawyers are expected to handle different matters. This brings us back to the issue of trust.

The Client-Lawyer Relationship
Trust is everything, and clients are entitled to be one hundred percent confident the lawyer they will entrust with their cases will defend their best interests. Communication is therefore fundamental, as advocacy is founded on premise that there is a prior understanding between a client and lawyer for the submissions presented to be as accurate as possible.

I will take the five months left of my placement at Wainwright & Cummins Solicitors to build on that asset and embrace as much as I can of both English and French legal traditions and languages in order to eventually handle cases across borders, aware of the fact families are now more likely than ever to have interests in several countries.

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