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Report: France

Planned immigration courts at Paris airport anger lawyers, rights groups

Lawyers protesting what they call "justice behind bars"
Lawyers protesting what they call "justice behind bars" Sarah Elzas

Lawyers and immigrants' rights activists are up in arms about new immigration courts due to open this year near detention centres at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport. The government hopes the move will streamline the judicial process and save money on transporting detainees to courthouses in nearby cities.

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The plan's opponents say putting courtrooms in or adjacent to detention centres hinders the legal process and even calls into question the objectivity of judges.

“As you can see here, we are in the building which is managed by the police,” says lawyer Bruno Vinay, standing in front of one of the detention facilities at the airport.

Surrounded by cargo warehouses, the building holds people who have just arrived in France. Technically not detainees – they are free to leave the country – they are detained pending court hearing. Many are asking for asylum.

After three days they appear in court and a judge rules on whether they can stay in France or must be deported.

Currently they are bussed 15 kilometres away to the courthouse in Bobigny, just outside Paris, where Vinay and other public defenders pick up as many as 30 cases a day.

But soon the hearings might be held here, in two brand new courtrooms built in the ground floor of the detention centre.

Vinay gives a tour, showing the video-conferencing software for interpreters in the wood-panelled courtrooms that have been soundproofed against the sound of airplanes taking off and landing outside.

The waiting room is separated from the detention facility by a solid metal door.

“People are living upstairs,” Vinay says, pointing to the other side of the door.

And that is the problem, according to Vinay and others who are protesting against these courtrooms: the fact that here judges will be hearing cases in the same place where people are being detained.

Two courtrooms have also been built adjacent to another detention centre nearby in the village of Mesnil Amelot, a few hundred metres from one of the airport’s runways. It holds people who have been in France and are facing deportation - the largest of the 27 such centres in France.

Detainees there are brought to their hearings in the city of Meaux, which rules on about 3,500 cases a year.

Vinay says relocating immigration hearings to the detention centres will make his job more difficult. The fact that these are facilities guarded by police will deter families from coming and families are valuable resources for public defenders like him, who have very little time to get to know a client and a case.

“We can work with the family to prepare the defence,” he explains. “They can bring documents. And we know that some are also illegal and they will hesitate to come and show up because they will be afraid of being checked.”

Another concern is the lack of resources. Today at the courthouse in Bobigny Vinay receives clients in the bar office, where he has access to resources, including the internet, to look up news reports on the countries of origin and, most importantly, to other lawyers.

“We have a system in which every public defender can call a senior lawyer at any moment,” he explains. As the coordinator for the public defenders at the courthouse, he often gets called by junior lawyers.

“If I am at the courthouse, I can go help,” he says. If the hearings are held at the airport, a 25-minute car ride away, this kind of support will not be as easy to give.

“I will hesitate to stop everything and leave the courthouse to come here,” he says.

He says the situation will be the same for judges, who will be isolated.

But Judge Michel Revel, the vice-president of the Meaux court, which rules on deportation hearings from the other centre, says isolation is nothing new.

“A judge, at some point or another, is necessarily alone,” he says. “When you make a ruling, you are alone faced with a human situation, faced with judicial arguments and the limitations of the law."

He agrees that lawyers should be given more time with detainees to prepare their defence but he rejects arguments from Vinay and others that judges will be influenced by being so close to police-run detention facilities.

“I don't feel pressure in Meaux, or here, or elsewhere. I am a judge, and as a judge I resist pressure, from whomever and wherever it comes from,” he says.

Rémy Heitz, president of the Bobigny court, insists that these courtrooms will not be run by the police.

“This is not a police zone,” he says. “This is a space dedicated to judicial activities, and the conditions to ensure judges independence and autonomy will be respected.”

If lawyers and activists do not manage to stop them, the courts are due to be operational by the end of the year. Vinay and other lawyers from the Bobigny and Meaux bars say they will refuse to appear in them.

“We know that they will continue the process without us,” he says “So it's a very tricky decision.”

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