Judgment Day !

Today was my first trip to Court, and like any new experience, it has been an interesting one !

Part of my new job assignment is the one of representation. Therefore I had to be present in Court for a traditionally French conciliation board case (Prud’hommes as we call it here). Whenever an employee gets laid off in France, there is a high amount of chances that he’ll go to Court in order to get more (or in some cases just get some) indemnities.
Back to the present day, I had to represent my company for a case against an employee who was let go 2 years ago. I was there mostly because my boss could not attend… Otherwise I would have appreciated to take that trip at a later time in my introduction to this part of the job 😉

The court is located in a beautiful building of Montpellier. Don’t worry, the picture is the front entrance, and as often the actual entrance is in the back, a far less impressive one, but a really nice building indeed. The room where the audience is being held is kind of what you would expect. A series of benches, a fence to separate the audience from the actual court, another bench for the attorneys who are turning their back to the public, and finally the large slightly elevated desk with all the judges behind it (and so facing the public). There are actually four judges with two assistants. This is kind of what it actually looks like :

The afternoon (for those who think it’s an all-day event … think again) starts with the assistant listing all the cases to be pleaded during the sitting, to see whether all the parties are present and ready to plead, or whether they wish to postpone it for various reasons. These reason include things like documents not being exchanged between parties in time, attorneys being excused, or simply not enough time to prepare for the plea (yes it’s apparently a valid reason). Following this first 15 minutes, the jury leaves to discuss about these requests for postponements.

When the jury comes back, they accept or deny the previously asked requests. That day all the requests where granted, and most of them postponed to January 2009 !!! No wonder that it takes forever for the judgments to be held !
Then the actual pleas for the cases can begin. All of them are held in the same way. The first party (the one requesting the judgment, so the employee) exposes the situation to the jury, highlighting the key points that he thinks will lead the jury in his direction, that is mostly the reasons why the company did no give the employee enough money. Then the defending party exposes it’s point of view, again pointing out why the preceding expose is incorrect and why the employee was being let go for the good reasons and respecting the laws/contracts in application at the time of the situation. Here is a little details of the arguments that where exposed that day

The first case was an employee against a very large sports equipment reseller who was assigned to manage a store in Hungary, as well as open new stores allover the country, and finally being let go in 2006 with aggravating charges.
From the employee point of view, he was suffering from a much elevated dose of work (fatigue, stress, surmenage, …) resulting in a high level of fatigue and leading to a doctor giving him a leave for sickness certificate. Moreover the company was not paying insurances for unemployment (Assedic) because the person was abroad. As a result the employee now back in France cannot have unemployment compensations. He asked for about 150k€ in compensation for this situation.
From the defending party, the employee did not justify he’s leave, and was in fact trying to create a new company. He’s leave was in fact justified after his return in the company, and the documents to justify the leave for sickness where not dated. For a manager of this level, not justifying his leave, and not making sure that the stores would run correctly was the key to him being let go. About the insurances problem, the company was actually paying them in Hungary as they should have, for the French part the company needed a procuration that the employee had to give. They asked to leave the situation as it was at the time of layoff.

The second case was actually settled with monetary compensations (50k€) on that day. So no further informations on that one !

The third case was a programmer, promoted as a technical manager following the buyback of he’s first company to the one who let him go because he wouldn’t move from Montpellier to Paris.
From the employee point of view, the suggested move was refused partly because he was previously divorced and had a child to take care off. Moreover the clause in his work contract mentionning the geographical mobility was far too wide to be valid. The question asked was whether the site was to be closed for economical (an information mentioned in his layoff letter) reasons thus leading to far more compensations than the one given when being laid off.
From the employer point of view, the mobility clause was valid, specially in this highly concurential market. Moreover the new employer of the employee had the exact same clause and limitations, thus showing that the employee could have accepted that one.

A bunch of other cases went before mine, but I was too busy proof reading mine, that I cannot relate them 😀 And for the record, all the result are to be given on the 15th of September !

For mine case, I could obviously not explain it here, but lets say that the choice could go both way in this layoff that was motivated by insufficient results and a refusal of geographical mobility.

Going pass those cases, the funny thing in all this is how a real masquerade this day was !
The attorneys are actors of a piece they choose to play. Each party chooses the lines they want to present. There is absolutely no rationality in how the arguments are exposed and discussed. As a result after the first party presentation, everyone thinks the company is a real bad-ass and did really take advantage of the situation. After the second party presentation, everyone thinks that the employee actually did make some mistakes and that the financial compensations requested are far too high ! So the question stands : how does the jury do it ?
Well they actually have all the elements on paper, not more not less than the ones the parties had to make the plea, and I guess they have to make a choice based on these elements, not really on the presentation of the situations although it can give some pointer.
Another funny thing is how all the advocates are in fact colleagues, and after the plea, drink cofee together, joke, and will even plea on a common case later on … So how is it possible for them to be fair and square and actually defend correctly their clients ?

The final conclusion you might ask ?
For one thing I would never be on either side of the desk : as a jury you must take decisions with far too limited information to be fair, and as an attorney … well let’s say it, you’re just a puppy !
For the second thing, judgments still look to me like a shot in the dark, without reasonable and rational elements being confronted. Maybe the truth syrup actually is the only valid solution ! Anyhow a couple of other jobs I would not like to do, and another institution (attorneys) who’s legitimacy I have difficulties to buy into !

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