If British companies become involved in legal proceedings in France, for example with their French distributor or customer, in most cases the dispute will be heard by local commercial courts (tribunaux de commerce), where the judges are locally elected business people. The tribunaux de commerce deals with most commercial contract and corporate disputes, as well as insolvency proceedings.
There are no witnesses at the trial and most cases are decided on the documents provided to the judge. Technical issues are dealt with by a written report from an expert on the regional Court of Appeal list of experts.
What does this mean for British companies? Well, there are various steps you can take to minimise the risks :
- Translate the English general terms and conditions and commercial contracts into French, making sure that the terms include ‘proper’ English applicable law and jurisdiction clauses or Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanisms.
- Have both the English and French versions signed by the French party before the contract commences.
- Properly document performance of the contract at every stage.
- Ensure that technical procedures implementing products are properly carried out by customers, or through the French distributor, supported by the required documentation.
What if proceedings take place in France?
If proceedings in France cannot be avoided, for example because a French customer or industrial user alleges a product defect, it is worth nothing that:
- Parties will be represented by Avocats who are authorised to plead in the French courts. Their ethics are similar to those of English solicitors.
- It is often useful to commission a technical report from a registered French court expert to support discussion with the claimant. The Court expert appointed by the court will conduct an investigation and hold meetings with the parties and their advisers before preparing the report for the court.
- Legal cost awards are significantly lower than in the English courts, as the risk of costs is lower, more cases go to trial. A successful party usually recovers legal costs, but the amount will be relatively low compared to real costs.
- Settlement discussions have to be conducted through the Avocats to preserve confidentiality. Direct ‘without prejudice’ discussion between the parties is not privileged from production in a French court.
- Mediation is gaining traction in France and shows similar rates of success in resolving disputes to those experienced in other countries. It is not yet fully obligatory (although the law changed in 2015 to encourage ADR). There are now experienced mediation centres in France and the courts are becoming more proactive in proposing mediation to the parties.