The Cour des comptes is the supreme body for auditing the use of public funds in France. It is independent from the Government and Parliament. It has financial jurisdiction and is in charge of auditing, issuing rulings and certifying the State and Social Security accounts, as well as contributing to the evaluation of public policies.
Our values : Independence, fair hearing and collective responsability
Four missions : assessment, control, evaluation and certification
The Court’s organisation
To inform citizens
Fight against corruption
These rules and principles ensure quality and impartiality. Although they are not specific to the Cour des comptes, they are not exact copies of what exists in other national institutions, either. Consequently, they may be legitimately presented as our distinctives.
As the supreme body for financial control, the Cour des comptes must be independent, in accordance with the requirements of good governance ratified by the UN in 2011. This independence is based on its status as a court, which has been the case since it was founded in 1807, as declared by the Constitutional Council in its decision dated 25 July 2001 on the constitutional bylaw on finance acts concerning its freedom of programming. This was reinforced when the Cour des comptes became self-governing – a recent change taking effect when the institution was placed in charge of certifying the state’s accounts. This made it inappropriate for it to continue to be managed by the Ministry of Finance, which produces these accounts. The independence of the institution also arises from the independence of its members, who are permanent magistrates. Their statutory guarantees have been reinforced since 2006. These are supplemented by a code of practice which also applies to non magistrate inspection staff – rapporteurs, experts and assistants. This independence results from legislation governing the level of recruitment, methods of appointment, promotion and pay. It is also a state of mind and practice: in this respect, the independence of the Cour des comptes is firmly established in custom thanks to its prestige and long-standing existence.
- Fair hearing
The audi alteram partem aspect of the procedure is a general principle in legal proceedings, established by the European Convention of Human Rights. The law makes this rule apply to all the procedures of the Cour. This simple idea is however very complex in its application. Methods of applying it have changed considerably over the years, with a succession of reforms. Balance is always sought between the obligation to hear the point of view of the person being investigated and the need to conduct an inspection within a reasonable timeframe. To be relevant, the Cour must be able to express itself clearly without taking too long in its investigative work.
- Collective responsibility
Collective responsibility is an important principle in how the Cour operates, even though it is not a general procedural principle in French law. Auditing is individual, but rulings in general are collegial. Although the magistrate investigates “for the prosecution and for the defence”, they simply suggest what outcome their observations should lead to and whether there may be legal or non-legal consequences. Rulings are made collectively, helping to eliminate personal preferences; moreover, each person’s position is covered by the confidentiality of proceedings. Collective responsibility is often highlighted and can sometimes be misunderstood. It is however necessary for the legitimacy and credibility of the Cour.
The Cour des comptes ensures the proper, efficient and effective use of public funds. To fulfil its missions, as specified and extended in article 47-2 of the Constitution, the Cour des comptes assesses, audits, evaluates and certifies.
- The Cour assesses the accounts of public accounting officer
The Cour assesses the accounts of public accounting officer (Civil servant or public officer, accredited to manage public funds) ; it checks that income and expenditure are correct. It releases the accountant from liability if the accounts are correct or declares them in default (« mise en debet » - Amount charged to a public accounting officer in case of irregularities that caused a financial loss. Unlike a fine, it can be cancelled by a Minister - ) if income has been lost or improper expenditure has been made. The Cour des comptes has jurisdiction for some one thousand accounts. It also assesses de facto accountants (persons who improperly handle public funds). Although its activity as a court is the Cour des comptes’ longest-standing mission, it no longer represents the major part of its activity. Its procedures were thoroughly modernised in 2005, 2006 and 2008 and its jurisdictional authority strengthened in 2011. However the Cour des comptes still does not have authority to assess the authorising officer: the person who gives the instruction to pay or receive payment to the accountant.
- The Cour audits the proper use of public funds
The Cour ensures the correct, efficient and effective use of public funds.
Proper use (regularity) : the Cour controls the conformity of management actions with legislation and regulations (including EC legislation and regulations).
Efficient use : the Cour ensures that the relationship between activities and the related resources used or mobilised is as good as possible.
Effective use : the Cour checks that the results obtained by public action comply with the stated objectives.
- The Cour helps evaluate public policies
The Cour exercises these controls either across the board for a public policy, or for specific bodies. When these policies are conducted both nationally and locally, it conducts joint enquiries with the Regional and Territorial Chambers of Accounts (RTCAs). In 2011, the procedure for Parliament referring matters to the court was clarified.
Far from being a solely technical matter, certification is a new field of competence and intervention for the Cour. The final objective is to provide the public with a sure source of clearer, more comprehensible financial and accounting information and a more transparent picture of the financial reality of the State and Social Security.
- Assistance to the Government and Parliament
The Cour is called upon to audit and advise the Government and assist Parliament. This mission was reinforced and extended by the LOLF, the Constitutional bylaw on acts relating to Social Security financing and the 2008 constitution revision. In 2011, a law specified the Court's assistance to Parliament in the evaluation of policies.
The First President presides over the Cour. A secretary general and two assistant secretary generals operate under the President’s authority, appointed by decree following the President’s proposal, and they lead the departments. The Cour is composed of seven Chambers and has a General Prosecutor's Office.
In 2014, 725 people were employed by the Cour. There are magistrates and other auditing staff, including private sector experts, as well as civil servants assigned to help with auditing and administrative management.
- Magistrates and auditing staff
In addition to the First President and General Prosecutor, as of the end of 2013, 8 heads of Chambers, 142 chief auditors (conseillers-maîtres), 66 senior auditors (conseillers référendaires) and 17 junior auditors (auditeurs) were employed by the Cour. Civil servants and private-sector experts assist with the audits conducted by the member magistrates.
Chief auditors in extraordinary service (law of 22 June 1976) : there are twelve of these auditors, appointed for five years non-renewable.
The external rapporteurs are category A civil servants and are recruited as “Ena” graduates or equivalent. They are senior civil servants, state engineers, legal magistrates, officers, parliamentary civil servants, local government civil servants, hospital civil servants, social security senior civil servants and accountants, etc. They are seconded to the Cour for six years maximum, or appointed there for a temporary position of two years. They have the same functions as the magistrates, with the exception of the jurisdictional tasks. There were 80 of them as of the end of 2013.
Experts, often from large auditing firms, provide detailed expertise for certain missions such as certification. There were 48 of them as of the end of 2013.
Assistants are category A civil servants, mostly from financial administrations (public accounts, tax authorities, customs), contribute to audits under the authority of a magistrate and a rapporteur. There were 70 of them as of the end of 2013.
The magistrates of the Cour are appointed by decree of the President of the Republic :
- a decree issued via the Council of Ministers for the First President, General Prosecutor, heads of Chambers and chief auditors ;
- a standard decree for senior and junior auditors, as well as for the Secretary General, assistant secretary generals and public prosecutors.
The work of the Cour des comptes follows four principles that guarantee the quality and impartiality of its observations: independence (in the programming and conduct of audits and the choice of action to be undertaken subsequently), collegiality and the adversarial procedure.
The auditing procedure
Magistrates carry out their audit based on documents and on-site investigations. The audited party has the right to give their point of view on the provisional document supplied to them by the court.
- Notification of audited parties
The head of the Cour court concerned by the audit signs and dispatches a "notification of the commencement of an audit" to the direct head of the department or body to be audited. This announces the scope of the audit, the names of the members of the auditing team and the probable schedule for it to be conducted.
- Start-of-audit meeting
The audit team members meet the managers and inform them of the topics and procedures for the audit and how it will fit in with any other audits in progress.
- Investigation based on documents andon site
Rapporteurs have very extensive investigative rights. They proceed with the investigation based on accounting and administrative documents from the organisation, answers to their questionnaires and, where applicable, answers provided by the accountant. They conduct investigations on site. Next, the rapporteurs record their observations and proposals regarding planned actions arising from the audit, in a document entitled “investigation report”: this is examined by the court.
- End-of-investigation meeting
The members of the audit team present the managers of the audited entity with their main observations (facts and analysis). At this stage, only the audit team is involved, and not the Cour.
- The first deliberation : collective
The investigation report is presented during a court session. The head of court presents the findings of the Prosecutor’s office, the rapporteur shares their proposals, and these are approved or rejected by the counter-rapporteur. The collegial body decides on any action to be taken.
- The draft audit observations (ROP)
This confidential document, specified in article R.141-8 of the Financial Courts Code, is sent by the head of court to the audited manager (with a copy to supervisory authorities, if applicable). In these observations the Cour goes over all or some of the observations and analysis of the rapporteur. If it implicates third parties, the Cour sends them the excerpts pertaining to them. The covering letter states the response deadline; this must be at least one month. In certain cases, draft audit observations may be deemed unnecessary. In this case the Cour directly establishes its definitive course of action in the first deliberation.
- The hearing
The Cour may decide to hold a hearing for the managers. If so, the head of Court informs them of the chosen date and may also indicate specific points for which the Cour is seeking further explanations. In certain cases (and particularly in the event of publication), the managers audited have the right to a hearing. Furthermore the Cour must offer them the right to a hearing if it envisages the publication of certain observations pursuant to the audit, or communicating these to Parliament, as is the case for interim reports to ministers.
- Second collective deliberation
This second deliberation (which may if necessary be followed by one or more further collective deliberations), takes place in the same manner as the first one. It enables the administrative course of action to be defined, i.e. communication with respect to this audit by the Cour.
To fulfil its constitutional mission of keeping the public informed (article 47- 2 of the French Constitution of 1958), the Cour publishes an increasing proportion of its work in the form of reports, through media, its website (www.ccomptes.fr) or Twitter(@Courdescomptes). The on-line availability of all the publics reports written by the Cour and, since 2012, of its summary procedure, futfil the requirements of article 15 of the Declaration of the rights of Man and of the Citizen : « Society has the right to call any public official to account for their administration ». Some documents or informations on these publications are also published in the english website of the Cour (www.ccomptes.fr/en).
Although they were not created to fight corruption or fraud, but to ensure accountability of public officials and public servants, and to judge public accounts, French financial jurisdictions – Court of Accounts, Regional chambers of accounts, Court of Budgetary and Financial Discipline – were always naturally involved in detecting and punishing financial crimes.
Their role is not exclusive; the repression of bribery or any breach to integrity is primarily the responsibility of the ordinary judicial authorities. New entities, dedicated to it, were also lately created in order to prevent and uncover it. In this context, the Court of Accounts builds cooperative relations with these other institutions.
The Cour has also developed a strong presence in the international area, through its actions of international cooperation, its participation in international professional organisations and its mission of external audit mandates.
For more information, please refer to « Institutional relations ».