The Court of Cassation is the highest court in the French judiciary. It was preceded by the Court of Cassation, set up by the Constituent Assembly in 1790 during the French Revolution.
Sitting in the Palais de Justice in Paris, the Supreme Court is responsible for review, at the request of the parties, the decisions of the courts and courts of appeals in criminal and civil.
The Court decided that questions of law or law enforcement, it does not consider the facts. It ensures its jurisprudence harmonious application of laws. Since 1991, the Court, at the request of courts, their advises on questions of law and new complexes arising in numerous disputes.
The Court of Cassation is the highest court in the French judiciary. Civil, commercial, social or criminal cases are first of all tried in courts of first instance (tribunaux d’instance and tribunaux de grande instance, commercial courts, employment tribunals [conseils de prud’hommes] ...). Depending on the monetary value of the dispute, decisions from these courts are either deemed to be rendered at last instance if they involve minor claims or, as in the majority of cases, at first instance. Thereafter they may be appealed before a court of appeal which re-examines all the factual and legal aspects of the case. Decisions rendered at last resort by first-level courts and decisions delivered by courts of appeal may themselves be appealed to the Court of Cassation. In addition to its position at the apex of the pyramid, the Court of Cassation is essentially characterised by two distinctive features which set it apart from other courts.
First of all, it is unique : “There is one single Court of Cassation for the whole Republic”. Its most important role by far is to uphold this fundamental principle which is laid down at the beginning of texts in the Code of Judicial Organisation that deal with the Court of Cassation : it cannot be dissociated from its foremost purpose which is to harmonize case law and ensure that texts are interpreted in the same way throughout the country. Such a harmonized interpretation is achieved thanks to the unique status of the Court which is consequently able to develop an authoritative case law.
A harmonized interpretation and the unique status of this Court are thus mutually dependent. Secondly, it is not a third level of jurisdiction after the lower courts and the courts of appeal as it does not rule on the merits of a case. Indeed, when decisions are referred to the Court of Cassation the Court is required to decide whether the rules of law have been correctly applied by the lower courts based on the facts. This is why the Court of Cassation does not strictly speaking deliver a ruling on the disputes which are at the origin of the decisions but on the decisions themselves. In actual fact it judges the decisions of the lower courts : it is up to the Court to rule whether based on the facts of the case which the courts assessed at their sole discretion and on the questions which were put to them they have accurately applied the law. The purpose of each appeal is consequently to challenge a decision and the Court of Cassation is thus required to find whether the rules of law have been correctly or incorrectly applied.
It is at this precise point that the outcome of the dispute is decided. If the decision of the lower court is quashed it is quite naturally set aside and, save in exceptional circumstances where the decision is quashed without the right to appeal from the Court of Cassation’s judgment, the case has consequently to be heard again.
The origins of these distinctive features, which confer on the Court of Cassation its singularity and ensure that appeals which are lodged before it form part of “exceptional” review proceedings, can be dated back to the French Revolution. A “Tribunal of Cassation” was indeed established by an Act of November 27, 1790 which by virtue of a senatus consultum (a decree from the Senate) on the Floreal 28, Year 12 became the Court of Cassation. However, the history of the Court can in fact be traced back even further and originated from the way justice was rendered under the Ancien Régime : it was possible at that time to seek judicial review of decisions delivered by the Parlements [Courts of Appeal] before the King’s Council even though justice had been rendered in his name. The fundamental role played by the Revolution was to maintain this institution, despite the fact that it was losing its raison d’être, and transfer the powers that belonged to the Head of State to the courts. Further developments which took place during the 19th century have enabled the Court to establish its widely recognized powers.
Moreover, the legal and moral role played by this judicial body has led the legislator to entrust it with a variety of other tasks. One such example is the introduction of advisory proceedings which, under certain conditions, allow the Court to accomplish its vocation to harmonize the interpretation of the law. Here the Court intervenes in advance that is before and not after the lower courts have rendered their decision. In addition, the role of the Court has also been indirectly widened on the one hand by the creation of various judicial bodies which are comprised in full or in part by certain of its members and on the other by the fact that its members are requested to serve on a range of increasingly influential and major organisations which do not necessarily fall within the scope of their judicial powers.
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Landmark Judgments |
Famous Trials |
Historical Facts |
Law Maxims # Acta exteriora iudicant interiora secreta - Outward acts indicate the inward intent
# Boni judicis lites dirimere est - It is the duty of a good judge to prevent litigation
# Conventio et modus vincunt legem - A contract and agreement overcome the law
Damnum sine injuria - damage without legal injury.
Ex facie - On the fact of it.
Faciendum - Something which is to be done.
Injuria non excusat injuriam - A wrong does not excuse a wrong.
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