As in other jurisdictions, private detectives in France are generally in charge of collecting, with maximum discretion, information for their clients to use as evidence during criminal or civil litigation work.
However, compared to his or her US counterpart, the means of investigation available to a French private research agent, un agent prive de recherches, are limited.
A French private investigator cannot gain access to police information, such as the criminal records office or research laboratories, and he cannot arrest wanted offenders – US detectives can do this, although under their liability and with the obligation of handing the criminal over to the police quickly.
In general, the collaboration of French private detectives with justice officials or police authorities is not regulated. As a result, criminal procedure regulations, Code de Procedure Penale, ignore them.
The powers of French investigators are, consequently, no greater than those of an ordinary citizen.
French law deals with detectives in only one matter – the organisation of the profession. For historical reasons, the French authorities were concerned about enforcing a clear separation between the police, who work in the public interest, and commercial firms that seek private information for the benefit of individuals.
The law of 28 September 1942 (modified in 1980 and 1993) and the decree of 8 December 1981 state that the creation of a detective agency must be notified to the local authorities, and the statutes require private detectives to show guarantees of good character (ie. that they have no criminal convictions, are not bankrupt, etc).
Above all, the statutes prohibit the use of a agency name susceptible of causing confusion with police authorities. The use of words like “police”, “security”, and “safety” are thus prohibited, as is the use of official-looking letterheads.
Despite this, the range of activities in which detectives may be involved has widened considerably over the years.
Starting from classical matrimonial or personal affairs such as adultery and prospective heirs, many of the 700 agencies in France now specialise in economic work or international investigations. Large companies use them to detect industrial espionage, intellectual property infringements and to inquire about the background of prospective employees and partners.
Lawyers often use private detectives during litigation. They research evidence relating to criminal proceedings, unfair competition and trademark infringements. They are also used during large-scale transactions, and to trace recalcitrant debtors.
Top-end PIs now use sophisticated techniques to track down the relevant information, and agencies spin an international web of informers.
Large agencies even have Internet research facilities. During economic investigations, cover-up actions – where investigators pretend to be prospective clients of the target – are common and technology is used widely.
The cost of these interventions varies. It ranges from a determined price on an hourly basis – 400F (£45) an hour plus expenses – for classical activities such as shadowing, to preliminary estimates according to the requests of clients in the case of more complex investigations – a typical search of intellectual property infringers costs around 15,000F (£1,700).
Although detectives are useful when other techniques of investigation are unsuccessful, it can be as risky to use a PI as it is sometimes to be one.
Criminal proceedings can be instigated against PIs if they use an official document or title falsely to mislead the public or forge those documents. Specific sanctions also exist in the case of invasion of privacy when there is, for instance, fraudulent wire-tapping or forcible entry.
Tortious liability may also arise in addition to this, for example in cases of invasion of privacy or of defamation by PIs.
For example, in a case in the Court of Appeal in Paris (June 30 1982, Jurisdata no. 22818) a detective was held liable for invasion of privacy for having revealed the identity of a mistress in a divorce case without prior authorisation.