In France, criminal majority is set at 18 years old by the ordinance of 1945 called the Charte de l’enfance délinquante
, which means that under that age, a person cannot be judged by the regular criminal jurisdictions but by special ones such as the Judge for Children, the Court for Children, the Correctional Court for minors and the Criminal Court for minors
(Vie Publique, 2017). This ordinance is the cornerstone of French law regarding minors. But, although the criminal majority is set by law, there is no fixed minimum age of criminal responsibility. So what does that mean for a child who commits an offence ?
Before 2002, minors between 13 and 18 years old were attributed a ‘relative irresponsibility’ and minors below the age of 13 were attributed a complete irresponsibility. Then, a reform was introduced specifying that «any offence can be attributed to a minor if the judge decides that the act that has been committed is the result of a free and conscious will without the need of making a distinction based on age»
(Courtin, 2004). As a result, responsibility can now be attributed to any minor regardless of the age because French law made the concept of judgement (i.e discernment) the necessary condition to establish criminal responsibility (art. 122, Penal Code). Article 122 of the Penal Code also states that only minors from 13 to 18 years old can face criminal sanctions (outlined in the ordinance of 1945). But from the moment a child turns 16, the judge can decide, if the circumstances, the situation and the personality of the child justifies that choice, that someone between 16 and 18 years old be judged as an adult for the crimes they have committed (art. 20 of the ordinance of 1945).
The problem is that the notion of judgement is never explicitly defined in the law and the age of the child is merely a means to determine which kind of sanctions is applicable. As such, the judge alone decides if the child demonstrates enough judgement to be attributed criminal responsibility. This does not mean that a child below 13 can now face criminal sanctions. They can only face educational sanctions but if they do not respect those sanctions and under certain conditions only, a judge can decide to place them in centers for juvenile delinquents (Delsaux, 2016).
A new reform in French law passed in 2016. This reform is called Justice of the 21st century and aims at rendering a more simplified and accessible justice system (Valy, 2016). As such, this reform targets several aspects of French law and is not solely focused on minors’ law but it does amend it on one point: the Correctional Courts for minors. Those Courts were created in 2011 under the President Nicolas Sarkozy and were entirely dedicated to judging minors between 16 and 18 years old who were recidivists and who had committed offences that could lead them to at least 3 years of imprisonment (Figaro, 2016). The idea behind those Correctional Courts was that judges for children were too lenient according to the French right-wing (Le Monde, 2016). But this new reform suppressed those Courts because, in reality, «they only processed 1% of the cases involving minors and were just contributing to the heaviness of the judicial system»
(Le Monde, 2016).