Ask an attorney: Helping friend serve legal papers?

by Mark Christensen
Kaiserslautern Legal Services Center

Q: Can I help a friend serve legal papers to another American here in Germany?

A: In most cases, service of process made by individuals or military unit officials is not legally sufficient. If you are asked to serve legal documents on someone by a friend or colleague, refer that person to the military legal office for more information.

A common scenario is that someone in Germany with the U.S. forces, the plaintiff, wants to move along a U.S. lawsuit against someone who is here in Germany, the defendant. As with any lawsuit, the U.S. case may not proceed until the defendant is properly served. Some U.S. states permit service by mail or person, by which a nonparty individual — you, the friend or first sergeant — delivers legal documents to someone in order to continue the case.

While that service-of-process procedure may be valid inside the U.S., there are separate rules concerning service of process across international borders. U.S. military installations in Europe are not U.S. soil exempt from these requirements, and service must be made in accordance with the Convention on the Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents in Civil or Commercial Matters, referred to as The Hague Service Convention. Any international service of legal documents that does not comply with the Hague Service Convention is invalid, and the court will normally reject improper service and require the plaintiff to show proof of proper service.

In some cases, a defendant wants to be served and may be willing to waive the Hague Service Convention requirements. Waiver of the requirements is permitted, and defendants in that situation should talk to a lawyer about accepting service and letting the lawsuit proceed.

Military legal offices often receive inquiries from plaintiffs and lawyers who want to serve U.S. legal documents on someone who is a member of the NATO forces, military or civilian. We respond with information about the Hague Service Convention and a reminder that the U.S. military is not permitted to accept service on behalf of a NATO member of the force nor can the military effect service by helping the plaintiff to serve the defendant.

Proper service under the Hague Service Convention goes through the U.S. Department of Justice to Germany, where the documents are then served on the defendant. Plaintiffs must certify and translate documents for service, even if the defendant is not German or does not speak German. Packets destined for Germany, to include U.S. military and civilian personnel stationed in Germany under the NATO Status of Forces Agreement, are sent to a central agency with the German state concerned to effect service of process. Only after the state completes service has the defendant been properly served.

Editor’s note: This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship. You should always consult an attorney for specific legal questions.