eDiscovery Trends: How Blocking Statutes Affect International eDiscovery
July 21, 2011
Over the past few weeks, we’ve discussed the general challenges of international eDiscovery, use of the 41 year old Hague Convention for requesting ESI from other countries, use of Section 1782 for foreign entities to request ESI from US entities, and the effect of privacy laws in other countries on discovery requests.
In the course of pursuing discovery requests in foreign nations, US lawyers also often run into another serious legal snag: blocking statutes. These statutes prevent certain types of information from leaving the country where it originates, and can interfere with discovery of evidence in a number of ways.
The purpose of blocking statutes - also known as "secrecy laws" - is to protect information that is considered commercially significant or relevant to national security in the country where it is located, or where it originated. Certain countries have blocking statutes that protect particular industries or types of information. In Switzerland, for instance, the disclosure or transmission of bank account information is forbidden by blocking statutes. Other countries, such as France and Germany, have created blocking statutes that make certain types of discovery illegal within their borders, complicating matters for attorneys requesting information.
A French blocking statute dating back to 1980 has been known to cause problems in the past few years for attorneys, by criminalizing cooperation with US discovery – in one case, resulting in hefty fines for a French lawyer who contravened that blocking statute. In other cases, a refusal to submit documents for discovery based on blocking statutes and the Hague Convention may be overruled by national courts depending on the circumstances of the case and the type of discovery being ordered.
Blocking statutes present an odd legal conundrum, because they don't prevent American attorneys from requesting privileged information or American courts from ordering discovery - they simply make it illegal for that information to be disclosed by nations of the foreign country in question. As a result, American courts and attorneys have sometimes expressed skepticism about the validity of these statutes and the likelihood of penalties being enforced against those who contravene them.
In fact, those who contravene these blocking statutes are seldom charged or fined. When the statutes are enforced, however, the penalties are steep.
Blocking statutes can be frustrating to organizations responding to discovery requests, because they put foreign individuals and organizations who are ordered to submit privileged information in the untenable position of either breaking their own country's laws – and facing penalties for contravening blocking statutes – or receiving sanctions from US courts for refusal to produce discovery documents. In many cases, foreign entities prefer to confront US courts rather than risk penalties in their own home countries, which forces US courts to address the failure to comply with these requests.
So, what do you think? Have you ever had a discovery request denied because of a blocking statute? Please share any comments you might have or if you'd like to know more about a particular topic.