Glass boxes in courtrooms violate presumption of innocence, finds French Ombudsperson

Article by Fair Trials

Fair Trials welcomes the recent decision of the French Ombudsperson, which stated that placing defendants in glass boxes in court violates their right to be presumed innocent. The opinion was delivered in response to a series of claims that were introduced by several French bar associations, following the generalised introduction of the glass box in courtrooms across France.

Glass boxes were already present in some tribunals, like in Orléans, where lawyers have complained that defendants “can’t hear anything”. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Justice is now funding the installation of new boxes across the country’s courtrooms and covering the existing ones with a layer of glass, which makes them look more like cages.

Local bar associations and lawyers’ associations, including the Association des Avocats Pénalistes and the Syndicat des Avocats Français, have introduced claims against the introduction and indiscriminate use of glass boxes in administrative courts since last year. However, such claims have had little to no success. On 12th February, the Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance rejected the appeal and found that placing defendants in glass boxes does not amount per se to a dysfunction of the criminal justice system. Only days later, on the 16th February, the Conseil d’Etat similarly dismissed an administrative appeal introduced by the Versailles bar association.

Several lawyers also challenged the presence of their client in the glass box before local courts. However, none of them ruled in favour of releasing the defendant from the box, with the exception of the Pontoise Cour d’assises.

Beyond the judicial venues, a separate claim was lodged in October last year to the French Ombudsperson, who found that the systematic appearance of defendants in secured boxes restricts their defence rights, including the right to be presumed innocent. The French Ombudsperson further pointed out that the indiscriminate use of glass boxes is not proportionate to alleged security concerns, as no individual risk assessment is carried out before the hearings.

The French Ombudsperson also stated that the indiscriminate use of glass boxes in criminal courts runs contrary to European Union legislation, including the Directive on the Right to be Presumed Innocent, which requires Member States to “[…] take appropriate measures to ensure that suspects and accused persons are not presented as being guilty, in court or in public […]”.

The Ombudsperson addressed some key recommendations to the Minister of Justice and the Minister of the Interior, including:

to repeal the current regulations that provide for the systematic installation of secure boxes in courtrooms;
to limit the appearance of defendants in secured boxes to cases where there exist serious risks to the safety of the hearing and where alternative measures would not be enough;
to develop boxes that respect the fundamental rights of defenders.
In response to the recommendations, the Ministry of Justice, which had stopped the installation of new glass boxes across the country in December, made clear that it is up to the President of the Tribunal to decide whether to place the defendant in the glass box. The Minister of Justice, Nicole Belloubet, also asked relevant services to remove barred boxes entirely from the country’s courtrooms.

Glass boxes and other measures of restraint are not a uniquely French issue but are used in many countries across Europe, as our network of fair trial defenders, the Legal Experts Advisory Panel (LEAP), reports.

For instance, secured “docks” have been installed in many courtrooms in England and Wales since 2000. In Italy, courtrooms usually include boxes with bars, which look like proper cages. In Spain, defendants often attend their trial in handcuffs, a measure that is applied without a proper risk assessment.

The way defendants are presented in court has been also examined in recent cases by the European Court of Human Rights.

The most recent one came on the very same day of the French Ombudsperson’s decision, on 18th April, in case Karachentsev v Russia. In this instance, the European Court found that having a defendant attending their trial remotely from a cage amounts to degrading treatment and is in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights (article 3). The same Court had previously found that placing a defendant in a cage inside the courtroom constituted a degrading treatment and violated the Convention (Svinarenko et Slyadnev v Russia).