A strange road to justice

The very British Pryce/Huhne farce would hardly have raised an eyebrow in France

Monique Fauchon

The Pryce/Huhne story has been explored from almost every news and legal angle. Indeed, at times it seems as though the whole sorry saga has been dreamed up by some fanciful law lecturer trying to construct a single case study to cover as many areas of legal study as possible.

First, there was the issue of dishonesty in public office – should a different standard of behaviour be expected of those in high office?

Then there was the acrimonious marital breakdown following Huhne’s affair. Given the family meltdown that transpired, this could be an opportune moment to discuss a divorce lawyer’s role in guiding

clients when to be conciliatory and when to fight with teeth bared.

The next bizarre twist came with Pryce’s accusations of “marital coercion”, attempted by this educated career woman, but a defence most of us had never heard of. And given that it applies only in the context of a heterosexual marriage, is it an appropriate legal point for the modern age? Discuss.

The most dramatic twist came with the failure of the first jury to reach a verdict. Britain was aghast at the ignorance displayed and a debate ensued on whether juries are an appropriate way of trying cases.

Finally, we reached the point of the custodial sentences, when commentary focused on whether the sentences were fair given the rarity of custodial sentences for swapping points. Again, are we right to expect different standards of people in high public office?

For me, as a French avocat based in London, the most intriguing aspect of the case is the striking difference with the way it would have been treated in France.

To start with, French privacy laws would have prevented the husband’s affair from being revealed by the press. Next, swapping points between spouses is not a crime. Further, this transgression could not have been prosecuted in France since a shorter limitation would have been applied. Finally, in France the sentence would never have been so severe – Pryce’s sentence would certainly have been suspended given that she had no criminal record.

As to the jury debacle, French justice minister Christiane Taubira has just announced the end of an expensive jury pilot in the tribunal correctionnels, where all but the most serious criminal cases are tried, so do not expect to see that kind of drama play out across the Channel either.

The experiment had been part of previous President Sarkozy’s flagship initiative to “bring the people closer to the French justice system” through his ‘citizen-judge’ scheme.

Apparently, the reforms just increased costs and created more delay in the system without delivering on the hoped-for promise of improving the public perception of the legal process. Given recent UK experience this finding is, shall we say, interesting.

Astonishing how, just a short distance from English shores, the same high-profile story would have played out so differently.