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What is Foreign Jurisdiction?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Foreign jurisdiction is authority over people in a foreign country or region. It is a form of territorial jurisdiction, a type of authority determined by location rather than the type of people involved or the type of activities being regulated. When legal decisions are made or crimes are committed in an area with foreign jurisdiction, they are not subject to rulings or decisions made by domestic courts. The matter of jurisdiction can become very important in some cases.

In a simple example, if a British citizen commits a crime in China, that citizen is said to have committed a crime in a foreign jurisdiction. Despite being a British citizen and subject to the laws in Britain, because the person was in China at the time, the courts and legal system in China have authority. If a legal decision is made in a Chinese court, the British court and British authorities cannot overrule or circumvent it. However, an attempt may be made to resolve the issue by diplomatic means.

For legal convenience, a number of treaties and agreements agree to recognize certain legal activities universally, even when performed in foreign jurisdictions. People married in Germany can have their marriage recognized in the United States, for example. Generally, while traveling, people are subject to the territorial jurisdiction of the nations they are visiting. While embassies can provide assistance to citizens in legal trouble in a foreign jurisdiction, they cannot keep people out of a foreign court system altogether.

There may be cases where people bring civil suits to court in a foreign jurisdiction because they are concerned about their safety in domestic courts or they fear that a fair trial cannot be held. This is most commonly seen in cases of human rights abuses. In these cases, national laws are used to determine whether the court can sit on the case and render a judgment. If it cannot, the plaintiff may be referred to an international court for help.

People may take advantage of jurisdictional disputes to attempt to evade punishment by fleeing to a foreign jurisdiction. Many nations have extradition treaties, but not all do, and nations will only extradite in certain circumstances. Countries with the death penalty will not extradite people charged with crimes that can result in a death sentence, for example. Because national sovereignty must be respected and the foreign court does not have jurisdiction, it cannot compel the accused to appear in court if the sheltering nation is unwilling to extradite.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By KaBoom — On Aug 22, 2011

@Azuza - That's a very good point. Also, I don't think the US will intervene in every case of a citizen being arrested in a foreign country.

Even if the US does try to help the person, as you pointed it out, it may not work. Also, since Texas just executed a Mexican citizen without allowing him access to a Mexican lawyer, I don't think the rest of the world is going to give us much leeway in these types of matters.

By Azuza — On Aug 21, 2011

I think it's very important for international travelers to get themselves up to speed on the laws of the countries they are visiting. If you commit a crime, knowingly or unknowingly, you embassy may not always be able to help you.

I can think of several past instances where American citizens have been sentenced by foreign courts to harsh punishments. And that was with diplomatic intervention on the US's part!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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