What Lawyers Need to Know About International Service of Process

International service of process is one of the less common tasks attorneys need to oversee, but if you wind up needing to serve internationally it’s important to know what you’re getting into. From extended timelines to increased costs to nuanced rules, serving someone internationally is an entirely different process than serving someone within our own borders. Handling it properly can be the difference between a successful case and one that leaves your clients extremely unhappy, so it’s critical to take the right approach. 

How is international service of process different from serving someone in the United States?

When you serve someone in the United States, service is conducted in accordance with both state and federal rules. Serving internationally requires the same type of approach, with service needing to be conducted in compliance with the receiving country’s rules and laws. 

There are three primary ways to serve someone internationally.

The Hague Service Convention

To make it easier to serve someone in another country, the Hague Service Convention on the Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents was created. Under this treaty, signatories can choose which articles they agree to during the service process, such as service via mail. The Hague Service Convention works by creating a central authority in each country for service requests to flow through to streamline the process, leaving it to the country to handle service internally once received.

Letters Rogatory

If a country isn’t a signatory to the Hague Service Convention, Letters Rogatory is the next option for formal service. This is a much longer and more expensive process in comparison to going through the Hague, given the lack of uniformity and the need to go through a formal request process. These requests go through diplomatic channels to ask the receiving country to complete service, with timelines and results being highly dependent on the current political climate between the two countries. 

Service Via Agent

When you aren’t looking to have a judgment enforced, service through the informal method of service via agent is an option. Serving someone this way is primarily for notification purposes and isn’t intended to be used when the receiving country is going to be expected to enforce a judgment. Rather, foreign courts will expect you to complete service in specific manner prescribed by the country, whether it’s through the Hague Service Convention or Letters Rogatory. 

Why is it so complicated?

Each country has their own unique set of rules, as well as specific articles of the Hague Service Convention they agree to if they’re signatories. These nuanced requirements mean no two countries are exactly the same, and serving someone incorrectly can result in a dismissed case or the inability to enforce a judgment. For example, say someone is served through mail via the Hague Service Convention, but that’s one provision they’ve expressly stated they won’t agree to. The entire service would be considered void at that point. 

There is also the consideration of translation. Many countries require documents to be translated in their entirety into their native tongue. It can get complicated to figure out what language is necessary however, especially in countries like Switzerland where there are four national languages or in China, where there are various dialects.

It can also be very difficult to obtain updates during international service. The ability to call up a process server and ask for a status update isn’t an option. Many times the only time an update comes is when the final affidavit of service or non-service is received in the mail months down the road. 

What are the costs and timelines?

Attorneys and law firms need to be aware of the costs and timeframes associated with international service so they can properly set expectations with clients. Serving someone internationally is an undertaking, and requires a clear conversation about what to expect. Costs for formal methods of service (the Hague and Letters Rogatory) can range between $600-$1,200 plus translations and timelines can range from three months to as long as three years. 

Service via agent is one of the fastest and cheapest options, with timelines that can run similar to those you would expect in the United States. However, it’s important to remember this method can’t be used when a judgment will need to be collected or ruling enforced. In these cases it would be required to go through a more formal method, either the Hague Service Convention and Letters Rogatory. 

What should a lawyer do if they need to serve someone internationally?

It’s important to make sure you follow the proper procedures and translation requirements, as these vary from country to country and can result in a court declaring service improper and dismissing it. After spending a substantial amount of time and money on service, no client wants to hear the service has been deemed improper and needs to be completed all over again. If you need to serve a document internationally, be sure to contact a process server who is familiar with international process service. 

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