A Royal Decree from Tonga

Globalization does not stop at legal advice either. Many of our clients now require legal expertise abroad. But how do the large number of international law firms find the colleagues who represent our clients locally in our interests? Thanks to our network “Interlegal” we get to know and appreciate the people behind the names. And we know who we can call via speed dial when quick help is needed.

Tonga – with this name, wonderful images immediately come to mind for each of us: miles of lonely white beaches, turquoise sea, palm trees, coral reefs – yes, and maybe the Haka dance. A paradise on earth; for some people also in a legal sense, because there is no legal assistance agreement between the South Sea Kingdom and Germany. “You can’t do anything to me here!” – the person who had cheated one of our clients out of a considerable sum of money probably thought accordingly. After his flight to the island paradise, the debtor then invested the unlawfully acquired assets in a local hotel and enjoyed a good time – at least he cannot be accused of lacking business sense. But the newly acquired hotel operator had made the calculation without the landlord. I called my good friend Robin King from our Australian partner law firm in Melbourne and we put together a team to bring the case to a successful conclusion. But to anticipate: it was not easy.

I met Robin King at an Interlegal network meeting in Prague. We talked there for a long time about the cultural differences in different legal systems. Because even though we all do the same job…, this often means something completely different in the respective cultural environment. I quickly realized that I was dealing with someone with excellent expertise. And for the Tonga adventure I needed not only a lawyer who could apply foreign law (there are certainly many of those) – no, I needed someone who could play the claviature of cultural differences and approach to authorities and the royal court in Tonga.

We still needed a long breath. The trial and prosecution of the culprit dragged on for several years. In the end, we managed to recover money for our client. However, we had to come to terms with the idea that our understanding of the enforcement of a claim does not work there in the way one is used to in European circumstances. It was still possible to obtain a court decision in Tonga and then have this confirmed by the High Court. However, once we had obtained a judgment against the debtor in the final instance, we were surprised to learn that no judgment had been enforced in Tonga in the last thirty to forty years, and that people no longer really knew how to do it. This was a really new experience for us.

After all, there are no bailiffs or similar officials in this small kingdom – nor is there a law like our Code of Civil Procedure, which provides for whether and how court judgments can be enforced. The old law was, in fact, unceremoniously repealed many years ago by the father of the present king. The only statement made by his colleagues there was that debtor cases were to be settled “in another way”, which was, however, also not possible due to the debtor’s lack of insight. After all, he still believed that no enforcement could be carried out against him. So what to do? We asked the King of Tonga to temporarily reinstate the ineffective enforcement law by royal decree, at least for a few months. On this basis, the officials there could then enforce the judgment. This was a completely new experience for those involved there, as it had not been practiced for decades. However, our colleagues from New Zealand, who are also part of the team, succeeded and the debtor lost the hotel. He had to pay in the end.

This case proves: Even if it is difficult to accompany and control such a process from here – with good personal relations and mutual trust with colleagues abroad, we can work hand in hand well and effectively in the interest of the client. And it is not enough to know and master local law.
But this is only one example of many. Most of our international cases are not this exotic, but always exciting. And of course we also support our foreign colleagues in matters here in Germany and Europe. Like the US-American lawyer Laura Jackson from Los Angeles. Her client, one of the most famous jazz bassists in the world, had a six-figure claim involving Swiss and Austrian as well as US and German law. We put together a team from the respective countries, which approached the matter quickly and without complications as part of a real teamwork project. We then brought the case to a successful conclusion for the client before the Regional Court in Bonn.

By the way, I met Laura at the evening event of an Interlegal meeting in New York. While talking about jazz music, we discovered that each of us has musicians in our immediate circle of acquaintances, and we both found that musicians and lawyers often have very different approaches and attitudes to many topics.

Quod erat demonstrandum – and yet many may find it hard to believe – we lawyers are indeed also human beings and personal contact with colleagues is an essential part of our work. For us it is very important to know the people in whose hands we place our clients and their concerns. To gain this important personal impression, I have been travelling to our network conferences around the globe for many years. This results in great advantages for our clients. If, for example, I need a brief information from a friend in the USA, Japan, Russia, Brazil, France or Argentina, as a stranger I would first have to sign a formal contract with a local law firm and would certainly not always be a premium client. However, if I call an interlegal friend, I can usually get immediate and quick first aid even without a formal contract or similar.

In addition, the network promotes professional exchange through conference days in areas such as corporate law, tax law, tactical approaches in other cultures, management, and the exchange and training of our young lawyers. Thanks to internships in foreign law firms, they strengthen their ties with their colleagues there, improve their language skills and gain a better understanding of the cultural characteristics of the local business world. Our partner Daniel Wolgast, for example, who was an intern at our English partner firm Shulmans LLP in Leeds years ago, still maintains a friendly relationship with numerous lawyers there. We benefit from the fact that he is able to assess the responsibilities and contact persons there and can tell us immediately in our Dortmund office whom we can specifically contact from the more than 100 lawyers there. The same applies to our Polish partners Koehler Rak & Partners or Solomon Blum Heymann LLP from New York.

  • Steffen Lorscheider

    Dr. Steffen Lorscheider, LL.M.

    • Lawyer and notary
    • Trade law and company law