Companies may face judicial proceedings not only in the country in which they are headquartered. When operating across borders, they may, under certain conditions, also be sued before a court in another (in particular: EU Member) State.

Respondents are notified of the start of judicial proceedings by the service of a judicial document. The transmission of judicial and extrajudicial documents in civil or commercial matters for service between EU Member States is governed by Regulation No. 1393/2007 on the service of documents (Service Regulation).

The document to be transmitted must be accompanied by a standard form to be completed in the official language or one of the official languages of the place where service is to be effected. The document to be transmitted itself may be written in another language, at least initially.

The form states that the addressee may refuse to accept the document to be served at the time of service or by returning it to the receiving agency within one week if it is not written in a language which the addressee understands or in the official language or one of the official languages of the place where service is to be effected.

Cross-border companies are strongly advised against prematurely refusing acceptance, however, on the grounds that the document to be transmitted is not written in one of the official languages of the place where service is to be effected, i.e., regularly at the company’s headquarters. Although French, for example, is not an official language in Germany, not every company based in Germany may claim that French was not understood there. If acceptance is refused without justification, service nevertheless be deemed to have been effected. Using the example of lawsuits against Facebook, a clear line on the right to refuse to accept judicial and extrajudicial documents written in a foreign language has now been established in Germany (e.g., Cologne Higher Regional Court, May 09, 2019, Case 15 W 70/18, Stuttgart Regional Court, August 29, 2019, Case 11 O 291/18):

As to the question of whether the addressee understands a language within the meaning of Article 8(1)(a) Service Regulation, it is not the personal abilities of the members of management that must be considered, but the company’s organization as a whole. The decision in this respect is governed by the fact whether, due to the nature and scope of the business activity in a particular country, it is to be expected that there are employees in the company who are able to handle legal disputes with customers in their local language. This necessitates an overall assessment, taking into account all the circumstances.

The more international a company’s presence, particularly on the Internet, the less it is able to rely on a lack of language skills when it comes to the service of judicial documents. For companies serving a large number of customers in the country in whose language the document to be served was written and providing those customers with an online platform entirely in that language, it is reasonable to expect that, in view of the respondent’s organization producing a wide variety of documents in that language, sufficient foreign-language staff will be available, as such a multitude of activities could not otherwise be carried out in that country.

It must therefore always be critically examined whether the company’s external image has given the impression that sufficient language skills are available before the acceptance of a court document written in a foreign language is refused.