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Parlements (pronounced in French) in ancien régime France — contrary to what their name would suggest to the modern reader — were not democratic or political institutions, but law courts . Membership in those courts was generally bought from the royal authority; and such positions could be made hereditary by payment of the tax to the King (la Paulette).
In theory, parlements were not legislative bodies. However, they had the duty to record all royal edicts and laws. Some, especially the Parlement de Paris, gradually acquired the habit of refusing to register legislation with which they disagreed until the king held a lit de justice or sent a lettre de cachet to force them to act. Furthermore, the parlements could pass arrêts de réglement, which were laws that applied within their jurisdiction.
In the years immediately before the French Revolution, their extreme concern to preserve ancien régime institutions of bourgeois and noble privilege prevented France from carrying out miscellaneous reforms, especially in the area of taxation, even when those reforms had the support of theoretically absolute monarchs.
This behavior is one of the reasons why, since the French Revolution, French courts have been been forbidden by Article 5 of the French civil code to create law and act as legislative bodies, their only mandate being to interpret the law. France, through the Napoleonic Code, was at the origin of the modern system of civil law in which precedents are not as powerful as in countries of common law. Since then, Courts have gradually regained some power, but it is still controversial whether unelected magistrates should gain too much power.
In civil trials, judges had to be paid épices (literally "spices" – fees) by the parties. Civil justice was out of reach of most of the population, except the most wealthy and well connected.
Regarding criminal justice, the proceedings were markedly archaic. Judges could order suspects to be tortured in order to extract confessions, or induce them to reveal the names of their accomplices: there existed the question ordinaire ("ordinary questioning"), the ordinary form of torture, and the question extraordinaire ("extraordinary questioning"), with increased brutality. Needless to say, there was little presumption of innocence if the suspect was a mere poor commoner. The death sentence could be pronounced for a variety of crimes, including mere theft; depending on the crime and the social class of the victim, death could be by decapitation with a sword (for nobles), hanging (for most crimes by commoners), the breaking wheel (for some heinous crimes by commoners), and even burning at the stake (for heresy, or advocacy of atheism). Some crimes, such as regicide, exacted even more horrific punishment.
Judicial torture, and cruel methods of executions were abolished during the French Revolution.
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