: The crusade against a French people’s lawyer

The crusade against a French people’s lawyer

Stuart Russell

A 65-year-old lawyer is arrested at home at dawn, his home is searched by the police, he is involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital and then suspended from practice for three years. In China? No, in France. In one of the most spectacular and outrageous attacks against lawyers in French history, people’s lawyer Bernard Ripert of Grenoble suffered this massive indignity in May 2016.

Ripert was arrested, allegedly for ’intimidating a judge’, and then immediately placed in a psychiatric hospital against his will. An outspoken and courageous member of the Bar for more than 40 years, he was the quintessential people’s lawyer. Since 1976 he has acted pro bono for demonstrators, as well as conscientious objectors, the poor and the downtrodden. In previous years he represented the terrorist group Action Directe. He was well-known across the country for his unbridled attacks against injustice and arbitrariness, inside and outside the courtroom, and because of this many judges detested him, particularly in Grenoble.

Over the years Ripert was subjected to professional disciplinary proceedings, and sanctioned on three occasions, including a one year suspension. Although an 11-member panel acquitted him of disciplinary charges brought in early May this year, the prosecutor lodged an appeal before the Grenoble Court of Appeal. His subsequent arrest unleashed a wave of indignation, solidarity and protest on the part of the Bar, in France and across Europe. The day after his arrest about a fifth of lawyers in Grenoble demonstrated in robes against his arrest, while he undertook a hunger strike.

After numerous protests in Grenoble, in France and internationally, and a subsequent favourable psychiatric assessment, he was finally released from the psychiatric hospital three days later. Strongly worded statements of support were issued by many Bar associations inside and outside France, support groups sprang up especially on Facebook and the ‘Je suis Ripert’ symbol was embraced by many supporters. But this was only the beginning of the crusade to disbar him.

For the appeal before the Court of Appeal in early June Ripert announced that 100 lawyers, even from outside France, would represent him. The day of the hearing about 30 lawyers from across France appeared in his defence, along with many demonstrators, when he defiantly walked into the courtroom backwards. Various preliminary motions were presented by Ripert’s defence at the beginning, including to transfer the hearing to another city given the bias of the local legal establishment, which was denied.

At the end of two days of hearing — a total of 26 hours — the prosecutor demanded his disbarment for life. During the hearings, Ripert wore a red triangle on his robe, a striking reference to the symbol worn by political prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. Finally, at the end of June the Court decided to disbar him for three years, rather than a permanent disbarment, judging that it would be ‘disproportionate’. Outraged, and denouncing the judgment as a de facto disbarment for life, Ripert announced that he would appeal to the highest court in France, the Cour de Cassation. To add insult to injury, fresh disciplinary charges — in relation to his conduct during the hearings before the Court of Appeal — were immediately brought against him.

According to one of his lawyers, Florian Borg of the Syndicat des avocats de France (Lawyers Union of France), this case demonstrates the urgent need to reform the disciplinary system for lawyers, while he condemned the Court’s judgment as a ‘professional death’ for Ripert. Unfortunately, about the same time a government working group released a proposal to the French government calling for judges to be ‘protected’, further enraging the legal community.

Ripert was of the view, and most of his supporters agree, that he was chosen as a scapegoat by the legal system to serve as an example to those lawyers who stand up for justice too strenuously. Although France is considered to be the ‘country of human rights’, there are clearly limits to exercising the freedom of expression. But rather than frightening or silencing lawyers, his persecution had the opposite effect, galvanizing perhaps more than ever before the French legal profession, in words and in action. However, the ‘Ripert Affair’ is also a serious warning and a wakeup call to lawyers everywhere that disciplinary proceedings or worse loom in the wings if they speak out too much, or agitate too vigorously against injustice. We tend to think that lawyers are only attacked in developing countries, but his case clearly reminds us that even in developed countries such attacks are taking place. Human rights lawyers, especially people’s lawyers, and their supporters must be ever vigilant.

France is also actively preparing to take part in the Day of the Endangered Lawyer on 24 January 2017, the focus of which will be on China. The first ever Day was organised in 2010, the purpose of which is ‘a call for attention on that day to threatened human rights lawyers with special attention to one designated country’. Information about the Day can be found on the website — http://www.dayoftheendangeredlawyer.eu. This year protests took place in 25 cities on the theme of Honduras. Protests by lawyers in robes are being organised and will be held in front of Chinese embassies and consulates around the world, including Australia, on that day. The spirit of the Bernard Riperts of this world will be in the air next 24 January.

STUART RUSSELL is a former senior lecturer at Macquarie University Law School.

(2016) 41(3) AltLJ 216
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