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NEWS

France: Courts should release persons detained in inhuman and degrading conditions

FairTrialsAdmin - July 10, 2020 - Pre-trial detention

The French Court of Cassation held that courts must order the release of persons held in pre-trial detention where they are living in inhumane and degrading conditions. This decision follows the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruling of January 2020 condemning France for its prison conditions.

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In a decision published on 8 July, the French Court of Cassation held that judges must examine allegations of inhumane and degrading conditions of detention made by persons held in pre-trial detention, provided that these are ‘credible, precise, current and personal’. If such conditions persist, the judge must order the release of the person and, if necessary, alternative measures such as house arrest. 

At present, French law allows judges to decide on pre-trial detention based on a specific and exhaustive set of criteria: public order, the reasonableness of the detention duration and, in some cases, the state of health of the detained person. Inhumane and degrading conditions of detention are not specified. In a separate ruling, the Court of Cassation held that the relevant law may be unconstitutional and referred the issue to the Constitutional Council. 

The Court of Cassation deems this to be the necessary consequence of the condemnation of France by the ECtHR last January for its inhumane and degrading prison conditions and lack of effective remedy. Noting that this was a structural problem, the ECtHR recommended that the French government adopt general measures to improve conditions of detention, put an end to overcrowding and offer an effective remedy to detained persons whose fundamental rights have been violated as a result of these conditions.  

Fair Trials welcomes this major step forward and judicial engagement on the issue of detention conditions in the absence of government or legislative measures. 

Inhumane and degrading prison conditions caused by prison overcrowding violate the fundamental right of persons to be free from torture and ill-treatment. Prison overcrowding is largely driven by excessive use of pre-trial detention – on average, over 30% of the French prison population are persons who are legally innocent and held in detention prior to their trial during the investigation. Fair Trials has long been at the forefront of the movement to reduce the use of pre-trial detention in Europe and around the world, urging courts to impose the least restrictive conditions necessary to ensure the course of justice can take place.   

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen progress. Thousands of prisoners ending their sentence were released in France. For the first time in 20 years, there were less prisoners than prison spaces. The slowdown in courts activity also led to a reduced number of imprisonments. With 58,926 detained persons at the end of May - against 72,500 on 16 March - for around 61,000 operational places, the average density of French prisons stood at 96%. Unfortunately, those measures completely ignored pre-trial detainees, despite being presumed innocent. 

It will take political courage to end over-reliance on prison and design a healthier attitude to imprisonment. The recent decision of the Court of Cassation and the current COVID-19 context present a historical opportunity for the French authorities to reconsider their approach to incarceration.  

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +32 (0) 2 360 04 71.

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