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How to Serve Civil Lawsuits Abroad

Nathaniel J. Ajouri


  • The Hague Service Convention is an international treaty that governs the process of serving civil lawsuits abroad. It requires each member state to establish a central authority for receiving service requests.
  • The serving party must complete a standardized form and provide two copies of the request and documents to the central authority.
  • The central authority serves the documents according to its internal laws or as requested by the applicant. After service, a certificate is issued.
How to Serve Civil Lawsuits Abroad

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Most of us graduating from law school probably never thought we would need to worry about international service. But the truth is, given today’s global economy—and the disputes accompanying it—it is likelier that lawyers will encounter at least one situation where international service is required.

The Convention on the Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents in Civil or Commercial Matters, commonly referred to as the Hague Service Convention, is an international treaty signed by 79 member states (including the United States of America) and governs the exclusive procedure for serving civil lawsuits abroad. Although, at first glance, service under the Convention seems complex and daunting, the treaty creates a system that uses standardized forms and removes much of the hassle involved with international service.

Procedures under the Hague Service Convention

At the outset, the Convention is broad in scope. It applies in all civil or commercial matters where there is “occasion to transmit a judicial or extrajudicial document for service abroad.” See Convention, art. 1; see also Volkswagenwerk Aktiengesellschaft v. Schlunk, 486 U.S. 694, 700 (1988) (“If the international law of the forum state defines the applicable method of serving process as requiring the transmittal of documents abroad, then the Hague Service Convention applies.”). The primary innovation of the Convention is its requirement that “each state . . . establish a central authority to receive requests for service of documents from other countries.” Volkswagenwerk, 486 U.S. at 698; see also Convention, Art. 2. Because each state designates its own Central Authority, it is important first to identify the designated Central Authority in the target forum

Once you have identified the correct Central Authority, Article 3 of the Convention requires that the serving party forward a completed service request to that Central Authority using the standardized form (available in PDF or Word online) attached to the Convention along with the documents to be served. The Convention requires that the request form and documents be furnished to the Central Authority “in duplicate.” As such, the serving party should provide the relevant Central Authority with at least two copies. The serving party should also pay attention to nation-specific details.

For example, some member nations require that the documents be translated into one of their official languages, while others do not. Article 5 of the Hague Service Convention notes that Central Authorities “may require the document to be written in, or translated into, the official language . . . of the State addressed” (emphasis added). More often than not, a translation is required. But contacting the target forum’s Central Authority to determine if this is a requirement is a prudent step before providing the Central Authority with two copies of the request and associated documents.

What Happens after the Central Authority Receives Your Request?

Once the Central Authority has received two copies of your request and associated documents, it must serve the documents in a manner (1) allowed by its internal law or (2) requested by the applicant, unless that method is incompatible with the law of the forum. Convention, Art. 5. After service, the Central Authority will complete a standardized certificate indicating how and where the documents were served, the date of service, and the person to whom the documents were delivered. To the extent the documents were not served, the certificate will set out the reasons why.

As a practical matter, it can take several months for the Central Authority to effect service and issue a certificate of service because the Convention does not establish any deadlines. Perhaps more importantly, if the party serving the documents does not comply with the Hague Service Convention, a Central Authority may object to the service request in its entirety, which could cause even further delay. But with some careful attention to the requirements of the Convention and diligence in timely providing the required documents to the forum’s Central Authority, international service under the Convention may not be as onerous as you think.