When one needs to use a public document (e.g. a marriage certificate, birth certificate or diploma) abroad, it is common that the authorities of the destination country require that the document be first authenticated by the authorities of the issuing country.
Historically, this authentication is made through a legalisation. This procedure, rather long and complex, involves several authorities, following a “chain”, until the final certificate is recognised by the destination country and can produce a legal effect there. In France, the legalisation procedure currently consists in having the document stamped by the legalisation office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and further stamped by the consulate of the destination country in France.
With the aim of simplifying the process, 120 countries so far have signed the Convention of 5 October 1961 abolishing the requirement for legalisation of foreign public documents, known as the Hague Convention or the Apostille Convention. The Apostille Convention speeds up the legalisation process to offer a single formality: the issuance of an authentication certificate in the form of a sticker added to the document, the apostille. In practice, the document is only stamped by one local authority to be considered valid by foreign authorities.
The apostille produces the same effects as a legalisation and has no expiry date. However, it is to be noted that, just like legalisation, the apostille only certifies the authenticity of the public document, i.e. the signatory’s power to sign it. Under no circumstances does the apostille validate the content of the document itself.
Steps to be taken until 1 January 2025
In France, the apostille application must be sent to the Apostille service of the Court of Appeal which the signatory of the document depends on. For example, a birth certificate issued by the city of Paris should be sent to the Paris Court of Appeal. Extracts from criminal records are issued by the National Criminal Records Office in Nantes and the apostille is therefore affixed by the Court of Appeal in Rennes. The request can be made on a form (Cerfa n° 15703*01) or on plain paper. The apostille is then issued free of charge by the French authorities.
From 1 January 2025, notaries will be responsible for issuing apostille certificates
A major change in the process is that notaries will soon be competent to carry out these formalities. Initially planned for 2023, the reform will come into force on 1 January 2025.
In practice, the request will have to be made in the following ways:
– by electronic means for documents drawn up in electronic form (increasingly common) or
– by mail or physical presentation at the notary office for non-digitalized public documents.
Notaries will have to check a national database of public signatures (note that this database will be kept up to date by public authorities. The transfer of competences is therefore not complete). The apostille will then have to be issued within three working days as soon as the necessary information is available in the above-mentioned database.
Furthermore, apostilles are currently subject to numbering and registration in an electronic register to allow control. As part of the reform, the competence to keep the register of apostilles updated will gradually be transferred to the High Council of Notaries (Conseil supérieur du notariat), instead of the judicial authority.
This registrar will be available for consultation free of charge by the foreign authorities receiving apostilled documents, being an opportunity for the French authorities to start dematerialising the process and catching up with other countries on the e-APP (Electronic Apostille Programme, comprising the e-Apostille and the e-Register).
However, there are still open questions regarding this change. For instance, by offloading the burden of apostilles to the benefit of regulated and independent professionals, the French government is also offloading a cost: a cost which, on the long run, is likely to fall, although to a lesser extent, on the user. The 2021 decree detailing the reform states that the amount of the fee for apostille by notary will be set by decree, which has yet to be published.
This upcoming change is accordingly to be fine-tuned, and a transition phase will need to be anticipated in the organization of international mobility.