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How can you gather factual information about the person or organisation you might want to sue, or about their activities? In this section, we identify some useful and unexpected sources of information to help your research. We focus is on less obvious information sources; internet searching is not covered.
As described in the section “Who can I sue?” (add link) , it is crucial to identify the right organisation or individual to sue. This can be quite challenging. In the cases of both “legal persons”(for example, organisations) and “natural person”s, names may cause confusion so careful research is needed to ensure you have identified the correct target.
The term “Legal person” refers to a non-human entity that is treated like a person for certain legal purposes: corporations, for example. Most countries recognise the principle that no company should have a name that is identical to or that closely resembles the name of another company.
When researching a legal person, be aware that this ‘name exclusivity’ principle is not enforced everywhere and that occasionally, scam companies may use names that are almost identical to names of well-known companies with a good reputation.
Besides the practical obstacles to identifying a natural or legal person by name, you may encounter other difficulties.
If you are researching a legal person such as a company or an organisation with a complex structure, it may not be clear which part of a corporate group you should take action against.
In addition, rules on business and trade secrets may pose further obstacles to identifying the real owners of a company, or to uncovering more details about their activities.
a) Company and business registers
A good starting point for collecting information on a company is the national company or business register. Business registers may be produced by public or private bodies, depending on the country. The main purpose of company registers is to provide some security for business transactions. Using the register, anyone can look up such facts as whether a company exists as a legal person, who is authorised to represent the company and sign contracts, and whether the company has the financial means to deliver a project.
The content of company registers is usually regulated by law and it varies from country to country which details are included. Sometimes fees are charged to access a register. If the access fees are very high, you could ask (pro bono) corporate lawyers to help you; they often have annual subscriptions to company registers since they use them constantly for their everyday work.
Further information on company registers:
b) State-owned companies
The transparency criteria which apply to state-owned companies vary from country to country. The main legal documents related to state-owned companies may not be available in company registers. They may instead be held by the public bodies which set up the company.
Alternatively, the organisational and operational rules of a state-owned company may not be set by the company itself, but may be defined and detailed by national legislation.
c) Other “legal persons”: associations, foundations, trusts
Many types of legal persons exist apart from companies, including associations, foundations, trusts, etc. Details about such organisations may be recorded in a variety of different registers.
To further complicate matters, some companies and civil society organisations do not have legal personality at all and may not be registered anywhere. Yet, they are active in various fields. If you have to deal with such organisations, you will need to find the natural persons associated with them. These individuals can ultimately be held responsible for the actions of the organisations.
If you want to take a legal action against an individual (or “natural person”), the first question is in what capacity is he or she relevant to your case? When you have answered that question, here are some sources of information which may provide information on the individuals in question.
Remember that when researching natural persons, their right to privacy may limit what information you can access and what use you can afterwards make of any personal data you do obtain.
a) Association with an organisation (“legal person”)
If you are looking for an individual who may be the owner, representative, or office holder of a company, association, or other type of “legal person”, it is worth checking company registers in the sources listed above under section 1.
b) Office-holder in a public body
When senior public office holders are appointed or elected, public information on when they assume or leave their positions are usually published. Such information often appears in official journals or official bulletins of the state concerned.
Freedom of information laws also cover public bodies. You can submit information requests (add link) under these laws to obtain information about public office holders insofar as that information relates to their public office.
Usually, the information that can be obtained under freedom of information laws includes such details as the office holder’s name, the scope of his/her authority, and the date of assuming office.
c) Persons registers
Government bodies often hold extensive databases which can help you research information on specific individuals. For example, authorities that issue passports or identity cards, or that operate vehicle registration may be authorised by law to provide you with information on a particular person. You will first need to prove that you have a legal interest in obtaining information about that person. Proof of a legal interest could include evidence that the individual concerned caused damage to you and that you wish to claim compensation.
a) Criminal law cases:
If your legal action is in the field of criminal law, official investigative authorities will most likely be able to identify the right person to prosecute. Your role in this case is to provide the authorities with the most accurate information on your case as possible.
Do not name individuals or companies in the context of a criminal case unless you are sure they are implicated. If you do so without sufficient evidence to support your claim, you run the risk of committing an offence such as libel or false accusation. If you are a victim of or a witness to a criminal offence, you may have to make statements, testimonies, or reports to the police, the prosecution, or other authorities. You should rely on the assistance of a lawyer when providing your statements to avoid being accused of making false accusations.
b) Civil law cases
If your case comes under civil (private) law, there is less risk of being charged with defamation, but you still have to be accurate in all statements.
When you are unsure of whom to bring an action against in a civil procedure, a possible strategy is to start your legal action against a number of defendants. In the course of the procedure, it may become clearer who the main defendant should be and which other parties can then leave the procedure. You should discuss this strategy with your legal representatives, including the costs that may arise from involving some parties who later turn out not to be the right targets.
For a successful legal action, you need to know not only who has done something harmful, but what has been done in what context, and why and how it happened. (The same applies to preventive cases where you want to avoid possible future harm).
Information sources useful for researching background information on activities of defendants include the following.
a) Public information
You can find much useful information readily accessible in publicly available sources. For more detailed information on public sources, see: (add link to right to info section),
Even if you find publicly-available information, proactively published, there is nothing to prevent you from filing further information requests to obtain additional relevant information that has not been published.
b) Licences and permits
In most countries, private companies and individuals can only operate certain industrial or trade activities if they obtain licences to start, sustain, suspend or expand their business. The riskier a business is, the more licences are required and the more complex those licenses may be. Normally, licenses from public bodies are required by any business that includes risks related to the environment, public health, public safety, public order, financial stability, etc.
The relevant details of these licences are normally held by the public office charged with oversight. Sometimes, it is obligatory to disclose license information, which may be published in various formats, such as on public websites, or in annual reports of the oversight body that issues licences.
However, even if such information is retained, it is not always published and it may not be possible for the public to access it. Access largely depends on the culture and capacity of the public administration concerned.
When public bodies are reluctant to share the information you need, either proactively or on request, you will need to turn to other sources. These other sources could include non-governmental organisation or international organisations that collect such information.
c) Public funds and public contracts
Public funds and public contracts may be an important source of information for preparing your legal action. Information on the financial transactions of public bodies and of individuals or companies involved in public contracts can be very helpful in providing much useful background on your case.
It is certainly worth seeking this type of data through information requests to public bodies and through checking information in published sources.
Here are some examples of useful information sources you could try:
(d) Court procedures
Court procedures in legal cases other than your own can be very important sources of information for your own legal action. You can often learn a lot from cases in which you are not directly involved but where one or more of the parties are relevant to your case.
In any court procedure, the court needs evidence to adjudicate the case. Evidence is provided by the parties involved and the court itself also has the authority to take evidence.
Through the evidence produced in court proceedings, the court, the parties to the case and the public in attendance can learn extensive details about a case and become familiar with a range of relevant facts. This can provide you with a wealth of information on the party to the case who may also be involved in your own legal action.
However, rules vary from country to country on who can have access to courtrooms and to case files, and under what conditions. For example, some court proceedings may take place during closed hearings.
In addition, certain restrictions based on the right to privacy and on business and trade secrets may also apply to information disclosed in courtrooms or in case files.
Nonetheless, such restrictions must be balanced against the right to an open and fair trial, which includes court hearings in public and rendering judgement in open court. Therefore, much information about court cases can normally come into the public domain through the public’s right of access to information and through considerations of the public interest generally.
Check out and use the following toolkits designed for investigative journalists:
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