Highlights

International Journal of Government Auditing – April 2013


An Overview of the Cour des Comptes of France

editor's note: This article is based on a presentation made by the French Court of Accounts at the PASAI Congress held in New Caledonia in October 2012. It outlines the unique characteristics of the Court of Accounts model for SAIs.

In the current era of globalization, SAIs tend to work ever more closely together. Thanks to our cooperation under the auspices of INTOSAI, we learn to benefit from each other's best practices, but we also become more aware of our differences. Because diversity has been a key value of the INTOSAI community since its creation, we believe that grasping how our counterparts operate is a valuable insight.

The French SAI, the Court of Accounts (Cour des Comptes), represents a very specific model that encompasses about a third of the world's SAIs, primarily in Europe, Africa, and South America. Although this model is widespread, it is often poorly understood. This article seeks to explain this jurisdictional model that, having existed for centuries, still retains characteristics useful for the modern world to ensure independence and fight corruption. Specifically, this article answers the following questions: How does the French Court of Accounts operate? What specific characteristics set it apart from its foreign counterparts?

History of the French Court of Accounts

The French Cour des Comptes is the product of a lengthy historical process. It is one of the oldest administrative bodies of the French civil service. Its origins lie in the royalty's Curia Regis (King's Court) of the Middle Ages (13th century), which was in charge of overseeing the preservation of the Estate—the main source of royal revenue. It ruled on accounts and exercised prosecutions through fines. When Napoleon established the present court in 1807, it reported solely to the Emperor. Since then, the court has gone through a slow and steady change in order to better live up to the ideal provided by article 15 of the Declaration of Human Rights: "Society has the right to ask any public official to account for his administration."

The Court's Jurisdictional Powers and Staffing

The court's jurisdictional powers are the original characteristic of the French model. Members of the Court are independent magistrates who cannot be removed from office. If the magistrates deem the transactions they review as legal, they have the power to discharge public accountants from further liability They can also impose penalties or fines on audited officials in one of two ways:

  • They can issue "judgments of the Court of Accounts" for all public accountants, who have sworn an oath before taking office and are personally and financially responsible for ensuring the compliance of all transactions with the financial jurisdictions (written) code.
  • They can issue "judgments of the Budgetary and Financial Discipline Court" for all managers entitled to make decisions on how to spend money.

Financial penalties imposed on accountants now depend on the severity of the misconduct and are not mechanically equal to the amount considered to have been lost by public authorities. Moreover, the jurisdictional framework is still evolving, and a new penalty system for authorizing officers—most often the top management or elected officials—is under consideration.

Another unique characteristic of the Court of Accounts is the diversity of the magistrates' skills. Their fields of expertise are broad and not confined to a specialty like financial or performance audit. Magistrates have legal as well as accounting and auditing backgrounds. Most are hired upon graduation from ENA, the school that trains top civil servants. They are appointed by decree of the President of the Republic. The magistrates work with external rapporteurs, who are senior civil servants that share the same functions as the magistrates, except for the jurisdictional tasks. Experts, often from large auditing firms, provide detailed expertise for certain missions, such as the annual opinion on the state's accounts. Assistants—also top level civil servants, mostly from financial administrations (public accountants or tax or customs officers)—also contribute to audits under the authority of a magistrate or a rapporteur.

The Court's Legal Mandate and Daily Work

The French Constitution is the ultimate legal basis of the Court of Accounts. Article 47-2 of the Constitution of the 5th Republic states, "The Court of Accounts assists the Parliament in controlling Government's action. It assists the Parliament and the Government in controlling the enforcement of finance laws and the implementation of laws on the financing of social security as well as for the assessment of public policies. It contributes to informing the citizens through its public reports."

The Constitution clearly states the Court of Account's mission in the broadest sense. Let us now look at the concrete missions that constitute the court's daily work. First, by virtue of the 2001 Constitutional Bylaw on Budget Acts (LOLF), the Court of Accounts is required to issue several annual public reports:

  • a report on the fiscal balance and enforcement of finance laws (RRGB),
  • a report on the situation and prospects of public finance (RSPFP),
  • reports on Social Security, and
  • an annual audit opinion of the state's accounts (certification).

These reports help the government and Parliament gain a deeper understanding of the state of public finances. Further, the court helps government and Parliament in monitoring public accounts and policies. Its audits of state books comprise four facets: judging, auditing, assessing, and certifying. The court judges public accountants' accounts by verifying the regularity of revenues and expenditures. It controls the use of public resources by examining the regularity, efficiency, and efficacy of their management. It evaluates public policies. It certifies the state's and social security's accounts to guarantee that the statements of public administration reflect a fair view of their financial situation. The court may produce reports at Parliament's request, but no more than about 15 such reports can be requested per year; otherwise, the court's capacity to self-refer matters for audits would be diminished. To inform citizens, the court publishes an annual public report featuring short papers concerning about 20 cases. The court also addresses letters to ministers regarding specific problems on a regular basis. These letters are disclosed to the public after 2 months. Four to six thematic public reports are released every year. Finally, the court issues reports on organizations that raise funds from the public. The Court of Accounts, therefore, has a broad mandate, encompassing both oversight and advisory functions. In 2011, the court carried out 1,119 audits. Among them, 42 reports were published (10 imposed by the LOLF, 18 on request of the Parliament, and 14 thematic reports) and145 judgments were rendered.

To strive for objectivity, the Court of Account's approach to monitoring public finances relies on the two key principles of collegiality and the right to a fair hearing. The court is not ruled by a single head but by seven presidents—each of whom chairs a chamber working on a distinct sector—and a first president. Decisions are made when the members of the court or the chamber concerned are gathered. Moreover, for each report a "counter-rapporteur" is in charge of verifying each statement, and audited entities are granted a right to respond to the court's opinion. A jurisdictional character permeates all of these procedures. A specific and little-known aspect of the court's functioning is the role of the General Prosecutor's Office. It is composed of a general prosecutor, a first general advocate, four general advocates, two project officers, and an administrative staff. It gives advisory opinions on the court's organization, the chambers' remits, the organization of assemblies for deliberations, rules of procedure, and work programs; it also monitors the enforcement of its work. All reports are officially sent to the General Prosecutor's Office to check their conclusions, notably the completion of the fair hearing process and the traceability of the procedure before the collegial deliberation. The office acts as an intermediary with other judicial authorities when criminal follow-ups are considered.

The Court's Relationship with Parliament and the Executive

Another important feature of the French Court of Accounts is its equidistance from both the Parliament and the Executive. The court is neither subordinated to Parliament, as in the Westminster model, nor liable to the government, as in the Executive model. The court is free to formulate its own annual plans: annual audit programs are debated and decided each year in a committee gathering of the seven presidents of the court. The court is also free to decide what results should be published and what form they should be published in. However, Parliament can also request annual reports on specific topics. Moreover, since 2006, the court's budget has been associated with the prime minister's budget and no longer depends on the Ministry of Finance's budget. A fair negotiation takes place every 3 years involving the court, Parliament, and the government. The court then decides on its organization and the allocation of its budget without any external interference.

Conclusion

The Court of Accounts' jurisdictional system, therefore, has a number of unique characteristics, notably its equidistance from Parliament and the Executive and its capacity to impose sanctions. These characteristics are a further guarantee of independence—from both the executive and the legislative—and efficiency in a changing landscape for SAIs, who may be threatened by the tendency of the executive to influence government bodies.

For additional information, contact the French Court of Accounts at courdescomptes@ccomptes.fr.