The apostille is an official certificate created by the Hague Convention signed on 5th October 1961 intended to certify the legalisation of a public document. It comprises simply of a seal given by a competent authority; this seal certifies the authenticity of a public document. In other words, this certificate attests to the veracity of a signature, the capacity in which the signatory acted and, if necessary, the identity of the seal affixed to the certificate. The process of having an apostille delivered is also commonly called the “legalisation” of a document.

The only documents which require an apostille are those listed in the Convention itself and destined to be used in another Contracting State.

The body in charge of legalisation is jurisdiction-specific and is designated by each Contracting State. In France, the authority to deliver apostilles has been granted to the public prosecutors of the Court of Appeal, but, for overseas territories (such as French Polynesia), local magistrates are competent. In the UK however, a central body, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Legalisation Office on the Mall in London, issues apostilles.

Matters get complicated under the French system, as the authority territorially competent to deliver the apostille is the Court of Appeal that has jurisdiction over the district where the signatory of the document, or the authority having registered or certified the document, is based. Accordingly, for a legalised copy of the constitutional documents (its articles of association, called “statuts”) of a Paris-registered company, only the Paris Court of Appeal is competent. But, if the constitutional documents have been translated by a sworn translator whose offices are in the business district centre of La Défense (1 mile West of Paris city-centre), only the Versailles Court of Appeal would be competent to deliver the apostille on the translation bearing the seal of the Nanterre translator !

Paris and Versailles are not far apart, people even compete in a yearly road race between the two… But, if the original document needs to be apostilled by the Court of Appeal in Marseilles (the statuts of a company registered in Marseille, for example) and the translated document apostilled by the Lyons Court of Appeal (district where the sworn translator is based), this is not ideal when you are in Paris !

You may ask: “why use a translator from Lyons if you are in Paris?”. Yet, translation companies, depending on the language required, the speciality demanded, time restraints and the availability of their staff, can draw upon their network of sworn translators registered with the Courts of Appeal of Lyons, Nantes or even Riom in Auvergne …

It is therefore advisable not only to ensure that the document and the translator hail from the same Court of Appeal district but also to inform the translation services providers where you wish to have the document translated and apostilled.

In addition, it should be noted that:

– for various legal documents such as share transfer deeds, company statuts etc., the signature of the document must be witnessed by a Notary (“notaire”). The Notary authenticates the signature of the document. This document is then transmitted to the apostille services of the Court of Appeal that has jurisdiction where the notary works; and

– for constitutional documents, only original versions of the document may be legalised.

In 2005, the Ministry of Justice issued a statutory instrument setting out a recommended apostille request form, which has been widely adopted. In any event, prior to going to the relevant Court of Appeal in person, we advise that you inquire by telephone with the Court’s apostille service, in order to avoid a pointless visit. For instance, certain Courts of Appeal may invite the petitioner to indicate the reasons for requesting the apostille or to provide the request in writing.

Luckily, however, though this is perhaps meagre consolation, the obstacle course that is legalisation is a free-of-charge service.