Jacques Chirac’s desire to implement a system of court class action to enable consumers to combat the abusive practices of certain industries should have been finalised by the beginning of this year by a draft law, but it was delayed.

The parties involved in the draft – consumer associations and lawyers – point out that the procedure will give small complainants the ability to be heard in the context of a unified complaint.

While a class action procedure already exists in France, the “joined action” it is not widely used because of its complexity. It involves collecting all the claims of the complainants which is a difficult task to manage.

Up until now companies engaging in abusive practices did not have much to fear from the French legal system but the situation could change with the draft law.

Critics of the law, namely the Medef, say that class action is an American menace and that more often than not the proceedings benefit the lawyers and not the complainants.

It could be that the ethical code for lawyers in France, which states that lawyers may not be remunerated exclusively on the result of a case, would prevent lawyers from unfairly profiting from class action lawsuits.

A working group of the national bar council wrote a report to the minister of justice which was favourable to the introduction of a new form of class action lawsuit. The report pointed out that for the new kind of lawsuit to be successful the lawyers’ ethical code must be flexible on two points: the prohibition on soliciting business and remuneration of lawyers.

However, a working group consisting of Medef representatives, consumer associations and lawyers was not in favour of introducing the procedure. In a report given to government ministers and published on 19 December, the group proposed three alternatives:

– a simple adjustment to the joined action;
– a collective action similar to an American class action suit where the collective action would be lodged by a group of consumers constituted of people who expressly wish to be included in the action or a collective action including all consumers except those who expressly wish to be excluded;
– an action led by an association following which the consumers could act individually to obtain compensation.

A new consultation is being launched and will continue until 1 March. After this date the government must deposit the draft law.