Combatting bias in the criminal courts of France, 1870s-1913

James Donovan

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In nineteenth-century France, liberals assumed that a conservative judiciary was frequently biased in favour of the prosecution, and socialists assumed that juries were dominated by the upper classes and too unrepresentative of the population to render justice equitably. Agitation by the left to combat these perceived biases led to the adoption of two key reforms of the fin de siècle. One was the abolition in 1881 of the résumé, or summing-up of the case by the chief justice of the cour d'assises (felony court). Liberals thought this reform was necessary because judges allegedly often used the résumé to persuade jurors in favour of conviction, a charge repeated by modern historians. The other reform, beginning at about the same time, was to make jury composition more democratic. By 1880, newly empowered liberals (at least in Paris) had begun to reduce the proportion of wealthy men on jury lists. This was followed in 1908 by the implementation of a circular issued by the Minister of Justice ordering the jury commissions to inscribe working-class men on the annual jury lists. However, a quantitative analysis of jury verdicts suggests that the reforms of the early 1880s and 1908 had only modest impacts on jury verdicts. Ideas and attitudes seem to have been more important. This has implications regarding two key controversies among modern jurists: the extent to which judges influence jurors and the extent to which the characteristics of jurors influence their verdicts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)137-168
Number of pages32
JournalAmerican Journal of Legal History
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Law


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