Law: The model of criminal justice?: After the trial of Omar Raddad, the discontented French want to adopt the English legal system, writes Adam Sage

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Does England have a model legal system? The question may prompt mirth in London, but in Paris - where criminal justice is under heavy fire - it is posed with increasing frequency and gravity.

In France, conservatives and liberals, lawyers, politicians and human rights organisations have all been looking across the Channel, as they search for a swifter, cheaper and more equitable system.

Within the last month, the Justice Minister, Pierre Mehaignerie, has expressed interest in lay magistrates' courts, a concept unknown in France, while the influential Human Rights League has called on Paris to adopt the adversarial system. Calls for reform have been mounting in France for many years, but reached a peak last month with the trial in Nice of a Moroccan gardener, Omar Raddad.

Raddad was sentenced to 18 years in prison for murdering his employer, Ghislaine Marchal, a wealthy widow who was found stabbed to death in her house in June 1991. The case was always likely to capture public imagination, but was transformed into high drama by her final act.

On the walls of Mrs Marchal's basement, police found the statement 'Omar killed me' written in her blood. At first it seemed a clear-cut case, but investigators found no other proof of Raddad's involvement in the crime, no forensic evidence, no motive and no witnesses.

At the trial last month, the defence suggested that Mrs Marchal could have been forced to write the statement incriminating Raddad, or that someone else could have written it.

Raddad's lawyer, Jacques Verges, was confident that his client would be acquitted on the grounds that there was doubt over his involvement, and did not attempt to hide his bitterness when the verdict went the other way.

'My client has been condemned because he is a Moroccan,' Verges said. Other organisations offered support, with 18 eminent lawyers signing a statement saying it was 'intolerable that the accused should be condemned when doubt existed'. The French Association of Judges also criticised the verdict, saying that the prosecution had been 'unable to prove its case'.

Yet Raddad's trial has served not just to ignite public indignation (64 per cent of French people would like to see him re-tried, according to a recent poll), but also to push the French criminal justice system under the spotlight. In particular, the role of the president of the court is under scrutiny.

In France, presidents - effectively the chairmen of the three judges who sit in important cases - have the task of questioning witnesses and developing the arguments at the heart of a trial. They are supposed to remain neutral, yet according to observers, President Dijian left little doubt that he was convinced of Raddad's guilt.

Roland Kessous, president of the Commission on Police and Justice of the French Human Rights League, says: 'I cannot comment specifically about Raddad's trial but I have been at many trials where it was clear that the president was convinced of the defendant's guilt. When he asks questions like 'How do you expect anyone to believe you?', it leaves little room for doubt. Here, the president of the court is immensely important. It is he who directs the debate, and he who directs the trial.'

Following Raddad's trial, the League issued a statement calling for presidents to be reformed into English-style judges, who supervise proceedings and sum up, but do not question witnesses and defendants.

'We would like the system to be more adversarial, with prosecution and defence lawyers examining and cross-examining witnesses,' Mr Kessous says, although he is keen to add that he is aware of the deficiencies of the English trial process. 'With your system, the prosecution must push its case to the limits, and so must the defence, which can lend a theatrical side to the proceedings. Justice should function more serenely.'

Raddad's trial also prompted demands for the rules of evidence to be changed, again with the English system taken as a model. Of particular concern was President Dijian's decision to allow the testimony of a prostitute to be read out - testimony which accused Raddad of violent behaviour.

French legal academics have been queuing up to point out that in England this piece of evdence would not have been admitted since the prostitute herself was not present to be cross-examined.

Rene David, of Aix-Marseille University, says the English system prevents lawyers from putting the defendant's personality, rather than the crime, at the centre of the case.

Yet it is not just Crown Courts that have been attracting French attention. With minor cases taking many months and even years to come to trial in France, reforms are urgently needed, according to lawyers. Here, too, England is seen as providing solutions.

On a visit to London this month, Mr Mehaignerie spoke in glowing terms of the advantages of magistrates' courts which, he said, helped to involve laymen in the legal system, and reduce the delays in bringing cases to trial. 'We are interested in magistrates and in the role of part-time judges,' he said. 'These two innovations could, perhaps, improve the way justice functions.'

Lawyers have been keen to point out that there is no question of establishing a comprehensive system of magistrates' courts in France.

'The British legal system is so closely tied to its history that it cannot be transposed such as it is,' the prestigious French daily newspaper Le Monde said recently. 'But the idea of introducing lay magistrates, in civil as well as criminal cases, is gaining ground.'

(Photograph omitted)