It is a welcome development that the French judiciary has investigated the crash of an airliner and announced a decision not to initiate criminal prosecutions against the aircraft manufacturer, its operator or maintenance organisation. The accident, in November 2008, involved an XL Airways Airbus A320 that was carrying out a post-maintenance test flight off the French Mediterranean coast near Perpignan.

The decision is welcome because the French judiciary has a history of bringing prosecutions following serious airline accidents that occurred in France. These include - not an exhaustive list - the 1988 Air France Airbus A320 crash at a Habsheim air show, the Air Inter A320 that crashed on approach to Strasbourg in 1992, and the Concorde crash near Paris in 2000. In the first event the captain was successfully prosecuted, in the second all those charged were acquitted, and the Concorde case has not been completed. The latter was adjourned at the end of May following four months in court, with the verdicts on the five people charged due to be delivered in December. Now there is Perpignan. Why is it different?

Concorde crash
 © Sipa Press/Rex Features
Judgement is still pending after the 2000 Concorde crash

At an aviation law conference at the UK Royal Aeronautical Society in April, a Paris-based lawyer explained part of the rationale behind the judiciary's tendency to prosecute following accidents. He explained that technical accident investigators have no mandate to consider the rights of the victims of the mishap. And since, in France, there is no equivalent of, say, the UK Coroner's Court, the criminal courts are the only means examining whether the victims or their relatives have seen justice done.

So it is not clear whether there is a legal difference between the Perpignan case and the others, or whether we are witnessing a transition in judicial attitudes. In the other three cases there were paying passengers who died, whereas in this one the victims were the crew of seven. Is that a legal difference?

Roll on the approval of the proposed new European law that updates accident investigation standards because, if adopted as drafted, it would make technical investigators responsible for considering the rights of the victims as well as determining the cause. That would make the criminal courts redundant following air accidents unless there was evidence of genuine criminality. And if Europe were to adopt such a law, and it were seen to work in reality, it could be a model for the rest of the world.


Source: Flight International