Guidance

France: Information for bereaved families - murder, manslaughter or suspicious deaths

Information and advice if a friend or family member has been a victim of murder, manslaughter or died in suspicious circumstances in France.

This information is to help you understand what you need to do if a British national has been a victim of murder or manslaughter or has died in suspicious circumstances in France and you are the next of kin.

You should also read the guidance available on what you need to do if you are bereaved through murder or manslaughter abroad, and what support the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) can provide.

Post-mortems (autopsies)

A post-mortem will automatically be commissioned for all murder or manslaughter cases or suspicious deaths. The public prosecutor can ask for the retention of organs (or samples) and can authorise this before handing the case over to an examining magistrate who will conduct the investigation. It is for the public prosecutor or the examining magistrate to determine when the body may be released.

If you would like copies of the post mortem reports, these can only be requested by instructing a lawyer to act as a civil party. However, the reports will be subject to sub-judice rules, which means that information cannot be released whilst the case is under judicial consideration. We advise you to appoint a lawyer and become a civil party to the case in order to access information about the investigation. The British Embassy can make requests on behalf of UK Coroners for copies of the post mortem but will only be able to receive a copy once the judicial file is closed.

A post mortem is usually carried out at the Legal Medical Institute. Only medical staff and the police and/or magistrate in charge of the investigation can attend. At the time of any post mortem the British Embassy can ask if organs or samples have been retained, and will let you know if that is the case. French death certificates do not show the cause of death even for natural or known causes.

Organ retention

It is often the case that the Legal Medical Institute will hold certain organs and samples in case further tests are required later in the investigation. French judicial authorities do not require the authority of the family to retain organs or samples if they are deemed necessary for the investigation. Any investigation can take many months or in some cases years to complete.

Organs (or samples) can be retained as evidence and in France the practice generally is for the organs not to be returned to bereaved families but destroyed. The British Embassy can lobby for organs to be returned, if that is what you wish, but this can be lengthy and difficult and there is no guarantee that the French authorities will agree to the request. The Ambassador will normally write to the public prosecutor asking if organs can be returned and Consular officials will keep in contact with the examining magistrate. You are also advised to appoint a lawyer who will represent your interests with the French authorities and make representations on your behalf.

Repatriation

A relative or a formally appointed representative must instruct a funeral director in France or the UK for the deceased to be repatriated to the UK, buried or cremated in France. France does not embalm without permission. Sometimes local embalming methods mean that the full range of tests cannot be done if a second post mortem is requested. Embalming procedures may have an impact on the efficacy of any subsequent post mortems (for example, if one is ordered by a Coroner in England or Wales).

Burial or cremation

Burials and cremations in France are similar to those in the UK although you may need an interpreter or funeral director to help with making any necessary arrangements. For murder and manslaughter cases responsibility for issuing the burial permits lies with the Public Prosecutor at the local high court. The Public Prosecutor will issue the permit at the same time as the deceased is released.

Local cremation can be refused in some cases if the authorities consider that there may be a need for further testing (e.g. DNA analysis) at a later date.

Police investigations

French police or gendarmeries only carry out initial inquiries. They then pass the case to the public prosecutor at the court with jurisdiction. If further investigations are needed the public prosecutor will appoint an examining magistrate to carry them out and open a judicial file. They will only share the judicial file with an appointed lawyer. In some cases investigations can take several months or years and are highly variable according to the area and circumstances.

On completion of investigations the public prosecutor decides if there is reason to charge someone or close the file. If the examining magistrate decides that s/he has exhausted all investigative options s/he can issue an order to close the case without charges. If you still consider the death to be suspicious you may appeal to the local appeal court via your lawyer.

Defendants do not formally plead guilty or not guilty in France, however if during the investigation someone confesses to the crime it may expedite the case.

Judicial process

There are no inquests in France but murder investigations can take several years. You should appoint a lawyer to become a civil party to the investigation. Becoming a civil party to proceedings is required in order to have access to the investigation and obtain information from the magistrate’s file. A lawyer is highly recommended as French law can be complicated and care needs to be taken to ensure the correct process is followed.

Inquiries into deaths in France are not public. The doctor who certifies the death will not usually provide a medical certificate which states anything other than that he has medically certified the death.

Other useful information

  • the Embassy Press Team can advise on how to manage any media intrusion from French media
  • “Institut National d’Aide aux Victimes et de Médiation” (INAVEM) in France is a similar organisation to Victim Support in the United Kingdom. You do not need to be resident in France to approach INAVEM. They can advise and help the bereaved or close relatives and guide them through some aspects of the judicial process They can also help with claims for compensation. There are limited other local support organisations for bereaved British families. Each court has a Victim Support office but levels of assistance vary on the individual office and a translator may be required
  • there is a specific fund for the victims of terrorism and another one equivalent to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund. Applications need to go through a lawyer in order to avoid systematic undervaluation of dependents’ claims;
  • Legal aid can be offered and can be either full or partial, depending mainly on the applicant’s income and family circumstances. If you are resident in France you should apply to the Procureur de la Republique at the Tribunal de Grande Instance in the district where you live. A resident of the United Kingdom may apply in the same way.

Neither the British Embassy nor HM Government accept legal liability with regards to the content of this information sheet.

Published 14 June 2017