Law: France: 1 Yobs: 0 But what about the replay?

The French may have dealt quickly and firmly with English hooligans. But they may also have broken the rules.
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The Independent Culture
WHEN 36 football supporters were arrested after violence erupted at Marseilles last weekend, it was only a matter of days before six of them found themselves starting prison sentences of up to three months in French jails.

This fast-track justice has been applauded by politicians, commentators and the public alike. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing recognisable thugs dealt with swiftly and banged up, unable to cause further trouble.

Comparisions with our own legal system were inevitably drawn, where efforts to mete out speedy justice are constantly thwarted by inevitable adjournment. But have the French, quite rightly keen to cleanse their soil of hooligans before England's next turf outing on Monday, really administered justice?

The majority of the sentences were handed out to serious, indictable offences. David Shayler, the human bulldog whose St George's cross-embossed beer belly was splashed across most front pages, starts a three-month sentence for throwing missiles at French police, while two Merseyside postal workers, Chris Anderson and Graham Whitby, were given the same sentence for setting fire to a car.

According to Walter Greenwood, media law expert, if similar offences were committed in Britain they would be dealt with by a judge at Crown Court. "Both arson and affray are indictable offences," he says. "Even if the accused were pleading guilty, it would extremely unlikely that a prison sentence would be given out so quickly. Our courts take great care over sentencing. Much angst goes into getting in absolutely right, and that is one of the reasons why our judicial system is notoriously slow."

Such is the British perception of justice, that even if an individual has previous criminal convictions, he or she will - to a greater or lesser extent - be counselled to mend his or her ways. In keeping with this legal philosophy, a judge will commission pre-sentence reports.

"A social worker will probably sit down with the defendant and go into their behaviour in some depth," says Greenwood. "If they are a first-time offender, the judge will expect the pre-sentence and social reports to cover the individual's approach to life. When all this is done the defendant appears before the judge who bases his jail sentence on the information contained in the report. Ultimately, this lengthy process leads to a more considered sentence than is given under the French fast-track justice."

The fast-track courts, which sit around the clock in each of the 10 towns hosting the World Cup, are effectively ordinary French courts set up specifically to deal with violence. In some cases, the courts sit in the stadiums themselves.

Defence lawyers are provided for at the expense of the French government, but as in the British system, the defendant has the right to find and, indeed, pay for his own lawyer. Anyone convicted in such courts has a right to appeal.

The idea behind this system was to create an instant deterrent for other would-be troublemakers. For this reason, senior British police officers present in France have been calling on the courts to administer jail sentences. Assistant Chief Constable Tim Hollis of South Yorkshire Police says this would send a "strong message to English fans because we know that they hate being jailed in foreign countries".

It is not that French jails are more brutal than English ones. They are less crowded and free of archaic practises like slopping out, but, so the rationale goes, trouble-makers are simply scared of being in a foreign prison.

Francois Serres, a Parisian criminal lawyer, says the speedy process, limited to simpler cases with maximum five-year jail sentences, have certain disadvantages.

"You have about 10 minutes per case and the court sits until 10pm at night, so you can imagine how frantic the atmosphere is," he says. "The police deal with the evidence and this has problems in itself. A defendant can request a further investigation but this is not automatically granted."

Stephen Jackobi, of Fair Trials Abroad, says that although he has not received any complaints about the fast-track system so far, he expects there will be some.

"Practical problems will occur because the whole thing has been implemented in a hurry and that is a recipe for disaster," he says. "If you are going to get people in court for sentence one or two days after they have committed the offence then there is not going to be enough time to prepare an adequate defence case.

"If the crime is less serious and merits a non-custodial sentence, such as a ban or a fine, then I have less doubt about the adequacy of this quickie method. If the crime is serious, as these offences evidently are, then we should worry about this type of justice."

Not only would a defence lawyer have little time to familiarise himself with the evidence and prepare the case, but the accused would be restricted in his ability to convey to his lawyer the background and any mitigating circumstances to his actions, a restriction that is further exacerbated by a language barrier.

In fact, Jackobi believes that the fast-track courts are in some way contrary to Article 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights, which gives an accused person the right to proper legal representation.

"Any person who finds themselves in court in a foreign country should have access to an interpreter," he says. "Not only do they need to convey a case to their lawyer, they need to be able to understand the proceedings of the court.

"The problems will really begin if the sentences handed out are long ones, rather than just a few months. The people who have been jailed so far have, by all accounts, been ringleaders. But what will happen if an innocent bystander gets caught up in riots? Anything could easily happen."