in the United States
In law, interrogatories (also known as requests for further information) are a formal set of written questions propounded by one litigant and required to be answered by an adversary, in order to clarify matters of fact and help to determine in advance what facts will be presented at any trial in the case.
In civil cases, the issues to be decided can potentially be more complex than in criminal cases. For example if a person is charged with speeding, in a hypothetical case the prosecution has to prove that the person was the driver of the motor vehicle and that it was being driven in excess of the proper speed without any lawful excuse.
One example is compensation arising out of a road accident. In reality, a road traffic accident is rarely complicated. However to demonstrate the concept, this section assumes there is a car accident in a Common Law jurisdiction that does use complicated concepts ...
In this hypothetical claim the injured person would usually rely on the fact that the driver to be held responsible has (in the injured person's opinion) committed the tort of negligence. If they did that, the law requires the injured person to show that the driver owed them a duty of care and breached it. In practical reality, the courts accept that drivers owe other road users and pedestrians a duty of care, and the case would come down to whether the driver drove in accordance with the standard of a reasonable driver, and whether the injured person's injuries are a foreseeable consequence of the driving.
However, the manner in which the injured person could seek to prove those things is quite variable. In the simplest case the injured person could allege that the driver went too fast, failed to control the car properly or failed to keep lookout. The driver may have a defense to those allegations, perhaps if the accident occurred at low speed, and was unavoidable (maybe due to some third party intervention). The injured person may, however, argue that the driver was still responsible (perhaps the driver should have used the horn of the vehicle to alert the third party), or there may be other allegations.
The pleadings of the parties are intended to let the other parties know what each side will seek to prove at trial, and what case they have to answer.
However, in a complicated case, the pleadings may not give enough information. In the above example, the pleading may allege:
- The driver drove negligently. The details of the negligence are,
- failing to drive carefully
- driving too fast
- failing to make proper use of the car's controls
- failing to take reasonable steps to alert the third party so as to avoid the accident.
The driver is told the broad outlines of the case, but still does not know what allegation is being made regarding alerting the third party.
The driver can therefore issue an interrogatory to require the injured party to state exactly what it is that the driver did not do and should have done.
In the hypothetical example, this would assist the litigation process, because for example, if the injured person states that the driver ought to have alerted the third party, the driver may be aware that the law imposes no such duty, and can issue a motion (or application) to the court to have that part of the claim dismissed.
England and Wales
In England and Wales, this procedure is governed by Part 18 of the Civil Procedure Rules 1998. It is known as a Request for Further Information
In the Request for Further Information procedure, use of standard pre-printed forms is not common, and any such request would almost certainly be looked upon critically by the courts, as use of standard forms rather than requests tailored specifically to the case is likely to offend against the 'Overriding Objective' in that it is unlikely to be proportionate to the case, and instead result in the parties or their lawyers having to spend time, money and resources in answering the questions. The way the rules work, this could easily result in the party making the request having to pay both their own costs and the costs of the opponent - even if they win the case at the end.
In England and Wales, firstly the person wanting to know the information requests it in writing, either in letter form or, more usually, on a blank document with the questions on one side of the page and space for the answers on the other side. A deadline is set for the opponent to answer the request. If they fail to answer, the person requesting can make an Application on Notice to the court and ask the procedural judge to make an order compelling the opponent to answer the questions. Whether the judge will make an order is discretionary and will be determined in accordance with the overriding objective, and in the context of the questions asked.
In particular, the procedure is not intended to be used to ask questions that would ordinarily be dealt with at trial.
In the United States, use of interrogatories is governed by the law where the case has been filed. All federal courts operate under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which places various limitations on the use of this device, permitting individual jurisdictions to limit interrogatories to twenty-five questions per party. Interrogatories are typically "verified", meaning that the response will include an affidavit and will therefore be under oath (required for example under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 33); the affidavit may distinguish interrogatories from requests for admission, which may not be under oath.
California, on the other hand, operates under the Civil Discovery Act of 1986 (a revision of an older 1957 act), which is codified in the California Code of Civil Procedure. The statutes allow up to thirty-five special interrogatories per party, but this limit may be exceeded simply by filing a declaration of necessity. However, because the declaration of necessity must be executed under penalty of perjury, it can expose an attorney to personal sanctions for propounding an excessive number of harassing and burdensome interrogatories.
In nearly all U.S. jurisdictions, interrogatories are called just that and are supposed to be custom-written, although many questions can be reused from one case to the next. In the U.S. states of California, New Jersey, and Florida, the courts have promulgated standard "form" interrogatories. In California these come on an official court form and a party may ask another party to answer any of them by checking the appropriate boxes. The advantage of the California form interrogatories is that they do not count against the limit of 35; the disadvantage is that they are written in a very generic fashion, so about half of the questions are useful only in the simplest cases. In turn, California calls custom-written interrogatories "specially prepared interrogatories."
Because interrogatories are so heavily used in American discovery, there are two major compilations of generic interrogatories covering almost every conceivable type of legal case: Bender's Forms of Discovery: Interrogatories (published by LexisNexis) and Pattern Discovery (published by West).