A letter rogatory is a request for judicial assistance from a foreign country. In the absence of a treaty between two countries that covers such situations, these letters are necessary if a person in one country needs to serve court documents or collect evidence from a foreigner. These acts could be deemed a violation of the sovereign laws of the foreigner's home country if performed without judicial supervision. A letter rogatory has to travel through proper diplomatic channels, which means that the process is usually a lengthy one. This process is still common in cases involving North and South American countries, although treaties have simplified the process between North America and most of Europe and Asia.
Individuals usually require a letter rogatory if they are involved in legal proceedings that include a person from another country. This could mean that the foreigner is the subject of a lawsuit or simply has information essential to the case. In such circumstances, a person can draft a letter rogatory that includes information on the case, the nature of the request, and a statement of the local court that shows the reasons why the foreign court needs to assist.
Preparing a letter rogatory usually is required to serve one of two possible purposes. The letter may be necessary to get the foreign court to perform service of process, which essentially refers to the serving of court documents. It might be necessary to acquire evidence. Unless the case is one in which a country claims universal jurisdiction, then a court that tried to perform these acts in a foreign country without permission would be in violation of international law.
When a letter rogatory is prepared, it has to pass through several diplomatic channels before it can produce the desired effect. In the United States, for example, this process includes the letter passing through the Department of State, the U.S. Embassy, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Justice before finally reaching the foreign court. Although other countries may have a different diplomatic chain, anyone who requires a letter rogatory should expect a long wait before the request in the letter is executed.
Letters rogatory are complicated somewhat by the fact that they are subject to the laws of the foreign country involved. For example, rules for collecting evidence in the United States may differ from a country in South America. Because of such complications and the length of the process, most countries in Europe, Asia, and North America signed treaties and agreements in the 20th century which made the process much easier. These agreements allow for rapid serving of court documents between countries and contain uniform rules for collecting evidence.