The Legal Meaning of Letters Rogatory: Judicial Assistance, Sovereign Discretion and Confidentiality

What is Letters Rogatory?

Letters Rogatory are formal requests from a court in one country to a court in another country seeking judicial assistance, often related to obtaining evidence or testimony.

Understanding the Legal Meaning of Letters Rogatory

In international legal proceedings and transnational litigation, “Letters Rogatory” is a term of considerable importance.

These instruments help bridge the procedural gap between different jurisdictions, allowing countries to assist each other in civil and criminal matters.

Yet, despite their significance, many legal professionals and laypersons remain unfamiliar with Letters Rogatory’s nuances.

This article aims to demystify this concept by diving deep into its legal meaning, historical background, and implications in modern-day cross-border proceedings.

Historical Background

“Rogatory” derives from the Latin term “rogare”, which means “to ask.” Historically, when one court wished to request a judicial act from a foreign court, they did so through a formal plea. These pleas took the form of “Letters Rogatory,” essentially letters of request.

Definition and Purpose

Letters Rogatory are formal requests from a court in one country to a court in a foreign country seeking some type of judicial assistance.

Typically, this assistance involves obtaining evidence, serving documents, or sometimes conducting certain procedural acts like taking witness testimony.

Their purpose is to facilitate cross-border legal proceedings by ensuring evidence and testimony are collected in accordance with the receiving country’s laws.

This is crucial, as evidence obtained improperly can be deemed inadmissible in the requesting court.

The Letters Rogatory Process

  • Initiation: A court in the initiating country (where the main case is ongoing) issues a formal request if they believe evidence or testimony from another jurisdiction is required.
  • Transmission: The request is usually sent through diplomatic channels – typically from the foreign ministry of the requesting country to the foreign ministry of the requested country.
  • Execution: Once received, the request is examined for compliance with the requested nation’s legal standards. If accepted, the foreign court will execute the request as per its domestic laws. This might involve taking depositions, seizing evidence, or other judicial actions.
  • Return: After the execution of the request, the results (e.g., the obtained evidence or testimonies) are returned to the requesting court through the same diplomatic channels.

Limitations and Considerations

  • Sovereign Discretion: The requested state isn’t obligated to comply with Letters Rogatory. They have the discretion to refuse based on their internal laws, concerns about sovereignty, or other reasons.
  • Time-Consuming: As these requests involve diplomatic channels and considering two different legal systems, the process can be lengthy, often taking months or even years.
  • Cost: Executing these requests often comes with costs typically borne by the party.

Modern Alternatives: Treaties and Conventions

Recognising the limitations of Letters Rogatory, many countries have entered into treaties or conventions to streamline the process of international judicial assistance. Examples include:

  • Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLATs): These bilateral agreements facilitate evidence sharing primarily in criminal cases. They often allow for more direct and efficient communication between the relevant authorities of two countries.

Can An Individual Or Private Entity Request Letters Rogatory, Or Is It Restricted To Courts?

The initiation and issuance of Letters Rogatory are restricted to judicial or quasi-judicial authorities. An individual or private entity cannot directly request Letters Rogatory. However, they can initiate the process through local courts.

For example, a party might need evidence from another country in a cross-border litigation scenario.

While they can’t send Letters Rogatory in their capacity, they can petition their local court to issue such a request.

After due consideration, the court can issue Letters Rogatory to the appropriate foreign authority.

Thus, while the direct issuance is restricted to courts, individuals and private entities can be the catalysts that prompt their issuance by seeking domestic judicial intervention.

What Kind Of Information Must Be Included In A Letter Rogatory Request?

A Letter Rogatory request, a formal plea for judicial assistance between countries, must be meticulously crafted to ensure clarity and adherence to the requisites of the receiving jurisdiction.

Here’s a concise breakdown of the essential information that typically needs to be included:

  • Identifying Details: The requesting authority’s name, designation, and jurisdiction, alongside details of the court where the primary case is pending.
  • Nature of Request: A clear statement specifying whether the assistance is sought for a civil or criminal proceeding.
  • Case Information: A concise description of the case, including the parties involved, its background, and the current status.
  • Specific Assistance Needed: This could include taking witness testimonies, obtaining documents, serving process, or any other judicial act.
  • Details of Persons/Entities Involved: Names, addresses, and other relevant particulars of witnesses or parties from whom evidence is to be gathered or to whom documents are to be served.
  • Relevant Questions: Specific questions to be posed to witnesses if testimony is being sought.
  • Legal Provisions: Citation of laws or statutes that mandate or allow the requested action in the initiating jurisdiction.
  • Assurances: Confirmation that the evidence or information obtained will be used solely for the specified legal proceedings.
  • Additional Instructions: Any special methods or procedures to be followed during execution, especially if they are crucial for ensuring admissibility in the requesting court.

How Do Countries Handle Confidentiality And Data Protection When Processing Letters Rogatory?

When processing Letters Rogatory, safeguarding confidentiality and data protection is paramount. As these requests often involve personal data and sensitive information, countries typically adopt the following measures:

  • Diplomatic Channels: Requests are usually transmitted through secure diplomatic routes, ensuring more confidentiality than regular postal or electronic communications.
  • Restricted Access: Access to the content of the Letters Rogatory is limited to authorized personnel within the judiciary or relevant government departments.
  • Data Minimisation: Only necessary information relevant to the specific request is shared, ensuring excessive personal data isn’t transmitted.
  • Usage Limitation: Assurances are often sought to ensure that the data obtained will be used exclusively for the specified legal proceedings and not for any other purpose.
  • Retention Policies: After the execution of the request, data is often retained only for a necessary period, after which it might be securely destroyed or returned, in line with the country’s data retention policies.
  • Transparency: Some jurisdictions might inform the persons concerned about the data collection, ensuring their rights are respected in cross-border judicial cooperation.


Letters Rogatory, rooted in ancient practices of international courtesy and cooperation, remain an important tool in the modern landscape of transnational litigation.

While they are sometimes overshadowed by newer treaties and conventions, understanding their role and nuances is crucial for legal professionals engaged in cross-border matters.

Related Articles

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Join Thousands of Subscribers Who Read Our Legal Opinions And Case Analysis.