You’ve served the complaint on all of your defendants, they’ve entered their appearances, and everybody is girded up for battle.  Discovery commences.  In one of your depositions, you learn that one of the defendants was somehow involved in a business arrangement with a French entity, and you are convinced that somewhere in that company’s vast filing system lies the smoking gun.  The big enchilada croissant.  The damning piece of documentary evidence that will vindicate your client’s rights and bring the defense to its knees, trembling before the searing heat of your onslaught.

[The author bellows, in a deep, resonant voice…]

For you, counselor, are a gladiator.  A warrior for justice! Wielding a mighty sword, forged by men like Blackstone, Marshall, Holmes… Wapner.

[You’re getting a bit of a big head, don’t you think?]

You command your minions to create a mighty instrument of warfare!

Okay, you tell your paralegal to draft a subpoena, and you tell her to run a Google search to find out how to serve that thing on the French company.  She puts together the subpoena in about twenty minutes, and comes back to you with the name of a guy who says he handles process service in other countries.

Outstanding, you think, and off to the wars you go.  You plunk down $1,000 to have the subpoena translated into French, and send another $1,000 to Joe Bob the Process Server to pull the paperwork together, and then you wait.

Joe Bob is not a lawyer.
Joe Bob is not a lawyer.

Three months later, you get a nasty-gram from the Justice Ministry in Paris, telling you that “NON, MONSIEUR/MADAM.  CA, C’EST IMPOSSIBLE.”  No, sir/madam.  That is impossible.

Where did the wheels fall off?

  • Well, first, you let a process server—without a law license—tell you that you had the right scenario/legal conclusion in mind [yes, you should give your professional liability carrier a heads-up].  What the process server didn’t understand is that subpoenas aren’t given coercive effect by the Hague Service Convention (they’re covered by the Hague Evidence Convention), and even if they were, Joe Bob isn’t authorized to sign Hague Service Requests because Joe Bob is not a lawyer.
  • Second, you can’t just “serve” a subpoena (at least, not with any coercive effect).  It doesn’t work that way.  You have to send a Hague Evidence Request through the appropriate channels, and ask a French court to compel production.
  • Third, the French have blocking statutes that may prevent compulsion, and they’ve indicated that they rather like Article 23 of the Evidence Convention.  Sorry, that’s just the way it is.  But there are certain exceptions to the statutes and to the Article 23 declaration; your request has to be written in just the right way.
  • Fourth, you didn’t say s’il vous plaît.  Manners matter to those folks in France.  Where is your sense of propriety?  (I kid.  Of course, you said s’il vous plaît.  You just didn’t say it to the right person in the right way.)

So, let’s tee this up again, and try a more subtle approach to getting the smoking gun you so gleefully seek.

Here are the THREE CARDINAL RULES for Hague Evidence Requests:

  1. Take the words “any and all”, and eliminate them from your vocabulary.  Seriously.  They are the hallmark of good old ‘Murican discovery, and the French hate that.  So do the Germans, the Chinese, the Brits, the Canadians (yes, the Canadians hate our broad discovery practices, of all people!).  You must be surgically specific in identifying what you seek.
  2. Articulate precisely how that evidence is going to be used at trial.  Not that you think it may lead to other evidence or that you suspect that it might be relevant.  You have to say you need it to impeach a witness’ expected testimony or that it is a critical component of your trial theory…
  3. Hire local counsel.  At the front end, they’ll help us/you draft the request (see #1 and #2 above) and at the back end, they will appear for you in the foreign court.

Give me a shout if any of this doesn’t make sense.  Enough said.