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Glass boxes in France aggravate presumption of guilt

The way you are presented in court can have a deep influence on the whole audience, including the prosecutor, the jurors, and the judge. If their perception is biased, how fair can your trial be? Yet in many countries defendants are brought into the courtrooms with handcuffs, they wear a prison uniform or are placed inside a closed box that looks more like a cage. These measures of restraint have one thing in common: they make you look guilty.

red smallGlass boxes à la française

In France, the French Ministry of Justice has triggered protests and legal action from domestic defence lawyers, as a result of a decision to install glass boxes in courtrooms all over the country.

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.

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 glass box not only skews the way defendants are perceived by the court but also restricts the lawyer’s ability to assist them.

“Confidential communication with the person in the box has become virtually impossible” said Dominique Tricaud, criminal defence lawyer in Paris and Advisory Board member of the Legal Experts Advisory Panel (LEAP).

Often, the glass box is installed on a higher level than the lawyer’s place. As a result, the lawyer needs to “stretch up and bend over to reach the hole in the glass box through which they can talk to their client”. The defendant always wears handcuffs when they are brought into the courtroom and the handcuffs are only removed when the defendant enters the glass box. Sometimes, the police do not remove the handcuffs and it is the lawyer who needs to ask them to do so. “However, young lawyers can be intimidated by the police and might not intervene” said Tricaud.

Inside the glass box, the defendant is only able to listen to what is being said in the courtroom through a loud speaker, and they can only communicate through a microphone. Frequently, however, neither the microphone nor the loud speaker work, making it impossible for the defendant to follow their trial and make any meaningful interventions in their defence.

Legal interpreters assist the defendant from inside the box, and are therefore also not able to adequately communicate with the lawyers.

The “carpenter’s mistake”

The prosecution in French is also called “parquet”, just like the wooden flooring, because originally it was meant to sit at the same level as the defence. Despite its origins, prosecutors have actually always been placed on higher platforms in the courtroom, earning the name of “carpenter’s mistake” (l’erreur du menuisier in French).

In the 80s, former French Minister for Justice Robert Badinter, adopted a regulation which aimed at placing the prosecution and the defence on the same level. Prosecutors resisted the change and simply moved to unoccupied seats, which were placed on a higher level than the defence.

The appeals brought against the glass box should be decided by an administrative court on 12 February. In the meantime, the French Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers (Association des Avocats Penalistes, ADAP) has called its members to systematically ask the judge to release the defendant from the box. The result of the challenges is yet to be seen, but what is sure is that the new Justice Palace in Paris (which is due to open in April this year), will have prosecutors attending trials several feet above the parquet.

Glass boxes and other measures of restraint are not a uniquely French issue but are used in many countries. At Fair Trials, we are currently researching regulations and practices on the way defendants are presented in the courts of Austria, Croatia, France, Greece, Hungary, Malta, and Spain. The findings will help us advocate for a bias-free presentation of defendants across the European Union.

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