"My lawyer has just told me that we will not go before the family judge before October". Contacted by France 24, Laura *, 30, does not take heart. This mother, who accuses her ex-partner of violence, bet a lot on her appointment at the district court of Agen, initially scheduled for the month of June. But the confinement having paralyzed judicial activity in France, its hearing was once again postponed.

However, the Ministry of Justice announced in early May to give priority to urgent litigation, such as domestic violence, after confinement.

"At the start there was the lawyers' strike, then at the beginning of March, my son's father didn't show up and now the coronavirus," regrets Laura. As a result, it has been almost a year - since the filing of her file - that this mother has been waiting to be able to plead before a judge sole custody of her 5-year-old son, with visits supervised by a social worker for the father of the child . A year in which, with a heavy heart, she is forced, by law, to entrust her son every other weekend to his violent ex-boyfriend.

"He had been drinking and he had just beaten her while she was pregnant"

"My son has no place there," insists Laura. "My son's father's new partner called me in distress at the beginning of April. He had been drinking and he had just beaten her while she was pregnant. She called the police, he took custody and she was relocated a few weeks by 115, before returning home. " 

"My son has no place there, I don't want him to witness this climate of violence. He comes back washed after each visit to his father," said the mother, determined to put her child in the home. shelter as quickly as possible. Laura's lawyer therefore requested an interim order from the family judge so that the case could be decided urgently. The young woman awaits an answer.

"The appearances before the judge of family affairs are the most complicated to organize currently", explains to France 24, Katia Dubreuil, the president of the Union of the magistrature which expressed her difficulties to the Chancellery.

"During confinement, certain procedures could be dealt with in writing, but this is not the case for family cases which require the judge to hear the parents and the children in person, when the latter are concerned". However, the premises of the offices of family affairs judges do not always allow reception in compliance with the new rules of social distancing. "And yet it is a priority," regrets the union, which has denounced for years the lack of permanent means of justice.

Respect for barrier gestures slows down the courts 

French courthouses, which reopened their doors to the public on May 11, are subject, as everywhere, to major health constraints: filtered entrances, condemned seats, freezing in quantity, office layouts open to the public. However, the courts are not all housed in the same boat. "There are inherent limits to the premises," says Katia Dubreuil.

Adaptation is easier at the TGI in Paris, a brand new court of 120,000 square meters, than in the cramped enclosure of the TGI at Bobigny in Seine-Saint-Denis, where space is lacking even in normal times. Another example, in Lons-le-Saunier, in the Jura, the library had to be requisitioned to serve as the judge's office, while in Tarascon, in Bouches-du-Rhône, the overly cramped waiting room of the juvenile judge was sentenced.

"Respect for barrier gestures automatically stretches time," said the president of the Marseille court, Isabelle Gorce. Consequently, on the offices of the magistrates, the files accumulate and the delays explode. In Marseille, where "500 divorce applications are awaiting treatment", only "ten couples" will be summoned by hearing, at staggered hours.

In Paris, 450 hearings canceled per week

Other jurisdictions have done the math. Delays are piling up everywhere: at the Evry district court (Essone), within two months of confinement, 1,500 files relating to family matters, 800 from the correctional system and 6 from the criminal courts could not be processed, reported Francetvinfo in early May. In Versailles, where 2,000 files have been carried over, a return to "reasonable processing times" is hoped for September. In Paris, 4,000 hearings have been canceled, or 450 per week since March 16, the hearings could extend until 2021 and 2022. 

Another reason for slowing down: for several weeks the clerks could not notify the decisions of the magistrates, for lack of access to computer tools. In some cases, they will have to redo the summons of those summoned during confinement. To support them, a temporary reinforcement of 1,000 temporary workers has been announced.

It is "necessary but not sufficient", judge Katia Dubreuil. "At the time when we are told about the digital revolution, we are far from it, we lack basic tools, such as simple computers," she said.  

Looking for alternative solutions

Faced with the bottleneck of the judicial machine, the Ministry of Justice is looking for alternatives. In a note released in early May, he encouraged to reorient the procedures for the less serious crimes, in order to lighten the planning of the hearings. It also encourages the increased use of videoconferencing and civil proceedings without a hearing, by exchanging files.

In Paris, the prosecutor Rémy Heitz thus intends to classify without action a third of the 4,000 files in correctional "canceled" during confinement and is considering alternatives to the trial for another third.

Another announcement: the use of criminal courts, without a popular jury, so far in the testing phase, could be extended to one third of the territory, without waiting for the results of this experiment. A decision regretted by certain professionals who denounce "a regression" on the pretext of the health crisis.

"This crisis once again reveals the total need for justice. We would have liked - as for the hospital - it opens the way to change," deplores Katia Dubreuil. "But it is quite the opposite. The primary objective is to empty the stock of cases that have not gone to trial. We are moving towards dehumanized justice. "

* The first name has been changed.

With AFP

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