The French trial of Ian Bailey: Was it justice?

Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s family would say Irish justice has done nothing for them

To anyone accustomed to seeing witnesses being put through a rigorous cross-examination in the Irish courts, IanBailey’s trial in absentia by contrast appeared relatively plain sailing.

To anyone accustomed to seeing witnesses being put through a rigorous cross-examination in the Irish courts, IanBailey’s trial in absentia by contrast appeared relatively plain sailing.

 

The decision by Judge Frederique Aline and her fellow magistrates, Judge Didier Forton and Judge Geraldine Detienne, to convict Ian Bailey of the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier in west Cork is likely to prove highly controversial and divisive.

Already many in Ireland had been critical of the French decision to try Mr Bailey in absentia for the 1996 murder of the 39-year-old mother of one at her holiday home in Toormore. Many pointed to the decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions not to charge him in Ireland as sufficient proof of the error of the French decision.

For such commentators as well as many lay observers, the move to hear the case in France was wrong.

But the view of the family of Ms Toscan du Plantier is that it gave them hope of justice for their loved one.

That both sides have such divergent views is hardly surprising but what should be borne in mind is the very different systems of justice that exist between Ireland and France. That difference makes events of the past week in the historic Palais de Justice seem strange to Irish eyes.

The French justice system is inquisitorial rather than adversarial, as it is in Ireland. But even French observers remarked this week on the unusual nature of proceedings in the Cour d’Assises because trials in absentia, particularly for something as serious as murder, are rare in France.

Not only was Mr Bailey not standing in the dock in the elegant and historic wood-panelled courtroom but perhaps even more importantly, he was not legally represented. This resulted in a trial where no assertion was challenged or tested in the way it would be in Ireland.

‘Plain sailing’

To anyone accustomed to seeing witnesses being put through a rigorous cross-examination in the Irish courts, Mr Bailey’s trial by contrast appeared relatively plain sailing. There was a sense that perhaps the bar is set lower in France, leading to the inevitable conclusion that Mr Bailey would be convicted.

Yet the French system works – it is recognised by the European Courts of Justice. And as the lawyers for Ms Toscan du Plantier’s family argue, it was open to Mr Bailey to defend himself, as he did in the earlier appeal courts in France where he failed to win his arguments.

Of course, much of the difference is cultural. Seeing Ms Toscan du Plantier’s relatives speak fondly of her as a vivacious young woman was moving as they built up a profile of her. But the question remained – what had this to do with the question of whether Ian Bailey murdered her on a dark night in west Cork?

While such testimonies seem out of place in the Irish system, one has to acknowledge that the French family felt they had no alternative to get justice.

In Ireland, the DPP had deemed there was not enough evidence to try Mr Bailey.

Indeed, Mr Bailey himself, in an effort to put an end to what he says has been a living nightmare for him for the past 23 years, wrote to the DPP in late 2016. He asked to be tried in Ireland so that he could clear his name as believes he can. But that has not and will not happen.

Instead we have had a trial in absentia, conviction and sentence in a very formal, legalistic setting in Paris. Was it justice? The easy ostensible answer may be “Yes”, but probably the more honest and nuanced one is to say “Not as we know it in Ireland”.

But then Ms Toscan du Plantier’s grieving family would understandably say Irish justice has done nothing for them and make no apologies for seeking to have Ian Bailey tried in France.