Judges have backed a lawyer disciplined by French authorities after claiming an all-white jury helped acquit a police officer prosecuted over a suspect’s car chase death.
In its 20 April ruling, the European Court of Human Rights decided that the conviction of Alain Ottan for public comments contesting the ethnic origin of members of an assize court jury, violated his freedom of expression
In its judgment in the case of Ottan v. France (application no. 41841/12) the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been:
a violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The court held that the finding of a violation constituted in itself sufficient just satisfaction (Just satisfaction -Article 41).
The case originated in the acquittal in 2009 of a gendarme who had killed a young man from a community of foreign origin, living in a working class neighbourhood, during a car chase in 2003.
A few minutes after the verdict, in response to a question from a journalist, the applicant, a lawyer who had been representing the victim’s father, stated that the acquittal was not a surprise, given the ethnic composition of the jury, which was exclusively composed of “whites.”
The Montpellier Court of Appeal imposed a disciplinary penalty, namely a warning, finding that the lawyer had failed to comply with his professional ethical obligations of sensitivity and moderation.
The court found in particular that the contested remarks had been made as part of a debate on the functioning of the criminal justice system, in the context of media coverage of a case.
Taken in their context, they did not amount to an insulting or racially-motivated accusation but concerned the impartiality and representative nature of the assize court jury; in other words, the lawyer had made a general statement about the organisation of the criminal courts.
Capable of causing offence, these remarks were nonetheless a value judgment with a sufficient factual basis, and formed part of the defence of the lawyer’s client.
Lastly, the Court considered that the sentence, consisting in the lightest possible penalty – a warning, had nonetheless been disproportionate and had not been necessary in a democratic society.