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Monday, 27 April 2009

Outreau affair judge reprimand - a new French justice fiasco?

On Friday, Fabrice Burgaud, the investigating judge at the centre of the so-called Outreau affair - arguably one of France's biggest miscarriages of justice, received an official reprimand for his handling of the case.

And the apparent lightness of the penalty handed down by the disciplinary body, le Conseil supérieur de la magistrature (CSM), has already brought swift reactions.

A former Socialist party justice minister, Elisabeth Guigou, called the decision, "A new fiasco for (French) justice."

While Dominique Wiel, one of the defendants wrongly found guilty in 2004 and acquitted a year later said that he had expected Burgaud to have been prevented from working as a magistrate for at least a year.

"This type of decision is a bad example to young magistrates," he said. "It's telling them 'I can make a mistake but in the end I won't be punished for it'."

Burgaud was the investigating judge in the Outreau affair, dealing with an alleged paedophile ring in northern France.

And back in 1999 he began his inquiries that would lead to 12 innocent people being imprisoned, one suicide, two trials and the statement from the former French president, Jacques Chirac, declaring that the trial had been an "unprecedented judicial disaster".

When Burgaud took on the case, he was just 31 years old and it was his first job as an examining magistrate.

The allegations made by the two main protagonists in the case, Myriam Delay and her husband, Thierry, eventually saw 18 people - for the most part parents of children who had supposedly been the victims of paedophilia and incest - brought to trial in 2004.

Of the accused, four - including Delay and her husband - pleaded guilty and were sentenced, another seven insisted they were innocent and acquitted, while six others - all of whom maintained their innocence were all sentenced.

They appealed and a year later were also acquitted as the prosecution's case collapsed on the first day after a "coup de théâtre" with Delay finally admitting that they "had not done anything" and the she had lied all along.

The case made international headlines, threw the French justice system into the spotlight and led to that description from Chirac - not a man easily given to criticising the country's institutions that the affair had been "an unprecedented judicial disaster".

It also brought into question the exact role and power here in France of an examining magistrate - very much at the heart of reforms to overhaul the country's judiciary favoured by the current president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

All along unions have said that Burgaud had been made a scapegoat for police failures in the investigation process and even though the decision by the CSM is a relatively light one and is reportedly the lowest of nine possible reprimands his lawyers still aren't happy and it's likely that an appeal will be made on his behalf.

Burgaud is currently working in the Paris courts.

1 comment:

C. R. Jones said...

A terrible "miscarriage of justice" - but one that occurs all too often. Here in Canada, we are just wrapping up a similar case where 13 people (mostly parents) were falsely accused of murdering their infants or young children due to faulty forensic evidence. A review found pathologist Dr. Charles SMITH made systemic errors in 45 cases (out of 1,000 over 25 years). He claims he felt a need to hold mothers accountable in part because of his own unresolved anger at being abandoned at birth and raised in foster care, which I discount. It seems to me that in such emotional cases, prosecution, judges and police are all to willing to find the "murderer".

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