Tu es pardonné … it’s a French thing

French lawmakers allow their citizens the right to make a mistake.

“Ignorance of the law is never an excuse”. The old adage known the world over and the principle ingrained in our minds by many a poorly written television show. While this may not (always) be the case, one country has taken it further and actually codified the reverse thereof, albeit with limited application.

The French, fed up with bureaucracy, red-tape and their civil administration departments, have been handed a lifeline in the form of a new law passed by their National Assembly in January 2018.

This “droit a l’erreur” has been hailed as a major stepping stone towards fruitful co-operation between the administration and the administered. Its aim is to increase the level of trust between the government and its citizenry.

The basic premise of the law is that a person dealing with a governmental administrative institution is afforded the right to make a mistake in their dealings with that institution, without penal repercussions. Examples of such mistakes may include certain transactions such as submitting an incorrect tax return, making a mistake on an application for a grant, passport or permit or even a donation to your church.

In our country, there are limited areas where such a mistake will be tolerated by an administrative institution. If one takes the likes of the South African Revenue Service, the Department of Home Affairs, or the Road Traffic Management Corporation into account, many South Africans have suffered as a result of a mistake made while dealing with these institutions, particularly with regard to fines of both a criminal and administrative nature.

The South African Revenue Service has attempted to lessen the red tape involved in their processes, particularly when it comes to the average Joe, with the rolling out- and streamlining of the e-filing service, together with the Request for a Correction (RFC) form. This RFC is, however, not always available to be used in certain circumstances (once an audit has begun, for example) or still results in a penalty being levied (or a crime committed) for the use of the RFC or the making of the mistake in the first place – and this only being if you brought the mistake to the attention of the Service before they noticed it.

In the case of the new French law, a citizen may make a mistake and cannot be penalised for it provided that that mistake was made in good faith and that the citizen is not a repeat offender. So in most instances the government will forgive the first mistake that is uncovered by itself (not necessarily brought to its attention) provided that the citizen honestly made that mistake.

The real wonder of this new French law though is that, unlike our administrative institutions, the burden of proof regarding the actions of the citizen shift to the government. Thus, it is the burden of the administration to prove that the citizen wilfully acted in bad faith should it wish to take on the mistake.

While there are still be many exclusions to which the law will not apply and which will not be of interest to, it is refreshing to see a state administration making progressive strides at building trust with its people.

By Dylan Lowe
dylanl@dyason.co.za