[JURIST] French president Nicolas Sarkozy [official website; JURIST news archive] on Wednesday announced plans [flash video, in French; press release, in French] to end the country's use of magistrate-led investigations in criminal cases. Sarkozy made the announcement at the annual opening [MOJ materials, in French] of the Court of Cassation [official website], and said the changes would better administer justice to the accused, because judges would no longer face the potential conflict of acting as both investigator and adjudicator. If the changes are made, all criminal investigations in the country will be lead by state prosecutors, and judges will assume a more neutral role in the proceedings. The changes would make the trials more like the adversarial system used in the UK and US, but commentators expect resistance [Guardian report] from judges who have said the change is being made for political reasons.
The changes are seen to be due in part to a parliamentary inquiry [hearing materials, in French; JURIST report] into one magistrate's erroneous conviction of 13 suspects for pedophilia in the French town of Outreau. The suspects in that case spent 16-39 months in jail before all the convictions were finally overturned [JURIST report] in 2005 after the accuser admitted that her accusations were false [JURIST report]. The French justice system has been widely criticized for its handling of the case [JURIST report], with many questioning why court magistrates accepted the accuser's testimony and that of her children despite the inconsistencies in their testimony.