A first on French television: the cameras enter the courtrooms. Dominique Verdeilhan, presenter of the new monthly magazine of France 3 shot partly in the courts, will decipher the mechanisms of “everyday justice”.
Bring the viewer into the courtroom, and bring justice into the living room of the French. It is the ambition of Justice in France, new monthly magazine from France 3 broadcast this Wednesday at 11:10 p.m., which, for the first time on French television, installs its cameras in the courtrooms. Not to do “an American show”, wishes to specify Dominique Verdeilhan, face and pedagogue of the show, but for “to decipher, educate and bring justice out of its ivory tower”. What business will we see there? What are the pitfalls of this unprecedented intrusion of television into the courts? Explanation with the expert journalist of the judicial system.
Is filming hearings a first? The cameras could not, until now, enter the courts?
Since 1954 and the trial Gaston Dominici, the cameras were indeed prohibited from entering the courtrooms to film the trials. During this affair, which had unleashed passions, it was felt that the presence of television and photographers had disturbed the serenity of the debates. Following this, the law was amended, no longer authorizing cameras to enter courtrooms except to film a few images before the start of the trial, and on condition that the president, the magistrates, the lawyers, the defendant, the victims agree. Coverage of the proceedings in images could only be ensured by courtroom drawings.
An exception was nevertheless created in 1985 by the Badinter law, authorizing the recording so-called “historic” trials (Barbie, Touvier, Papon, AZF, attacks of November 13). But on condition that they are broadcast only after a period of fifty years. There were also a few documentaries made from the filming of trials, but this remained very exceptional. Things have changed in recent months with the law “on the transparency of justice”, voted in December 2021, which now authorizes the filming of hearings for the purpose of information and education. What had been exceptional since 1954 will therefore be able to become regular.
What led to this change in the law?
For a long time, everyone had agreed that the situation, frozen since 1954, had to change. In 2004, already, the Keeper of the Seals, Dominique Perben, had begun a reflection on the subject. At the time, I had also been part of the Linden commission, responsible for looking into the problems that the presence of cameras in the courts could pose. We had submitted a report, which was ultimately not followed up. It finally took until 2021 for a new Keeper of the Seals, Éric Dupont-Moretti, to relaunch and concretize the idea of changing the law. Development which makes this monthly program possible today, born of an agreement signed by France Télévisions with the Ministry of Justice.
Concretely, what will “Justice in France” show?
The aim of the program is to bring the viewer back into the courtroom to allow him to follow what is called “everyday justice”. This is not Johnny Depp’s trial, we are not at all in show justice, the big media trials. The first issue is thus devoted to correctional cases, mainly traffic offences. The next broadcasts will show sequences shot in the office of a family court judge or in a court managing cases of over-indebtedness. We will also film the assizes, the immediate appearances or the children’s judge, public hearings, but also cabinet hearings which are held behind closed doors.
“The French have more than mixed confidence in the judicial institution. They also have a knowledge distorted by American series or films.”
These immersion sequences in the courts represent 35 of the 52 minutes of the show, the rest being devoted to the decryption that I provide on set with a magistrate and a lawyer (for the first show, Jacques Dallest, former public prosecutor, and Maître Blandine Lejeune, lawyer at the bar of Lille). Not to re-judge the case or to judge the work of those on screen, but to explain it. A prosecutor, what is it? When we talk about manslaughter, reprieve, provisional measure, what does that mean?
Is there a desire for pedagogy and transparency?
Yes, this is what motivated the recent evolution of the law. Let’s make justice transparent, get it out of its ivory tower! Because we know that the French have more than mixed confidence in the judicial institution. They also have a knowledge of it distorted by American series or films. Let’s give them some explanations so that they understand a little better how it works.
Because the rare opportunities that citizens have to enter the courthouses, apart from the times when they are accused or victims, is when they are jurors in the court of assizes. After the fact, the majority of those who have been jurors tell you that they had a difficult experience, because they had to judge a rape case or a murder case, but they also understood the work of the magistrates, the weight represented by the act of judging. Seeing justice from within helps to understand it a little better.
What are the pitfalls we face when placing a camera in a courtroom?
The protagonists must first agree to be filmed. The condition sine qua non is that defendants and victims cannot be identified, and are blurred if they so request. Files and people must be anonymized, no name must be cited.
The other difficulty is that once the hearing is over and the decision rendered, for us to be able to broadcast the images, there must be no appeal, appeal or cassation. It is not a question of influencing a future court decision. We shoot, but without knowing what will happen at the end of the hearing. A case referred, a file that is too complex legally, a person who refuses at the last moment to be filmed, all this prevents us from using the images.
But quite frankly, contrary to what some still fear, I don’t think that the presence of the cameras, small and discreet, affects the course of the hearing. Nor that it encourages magistrates or lawyers to make effects of handle. I think everyone forgets that they are there, because the priority remains the file. And I hope that the first broadcasts of the show will reassure those who are still reluctant about this useful role of testimony and decryption.
Justice in France, presented by Dominique Verdeilhan (France, 2022). 55 mins. Unpublished. Wednesday October 19, France 3, 11:10 p.m.