What is a Fishing Expedition?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

In law, a fishing expedition is an attempt to gather evidence with the use of tactics like vague questions for someone on the witness stand or in a deposition, or broad legal requests made during discovery to try and gain access to compromising materials. People can also use this term to describe situations where a lawyer threatens suit or other legal action with intimidation in mind, not necessarily with the law on his side.

A fishing expedition may refer to asking vague questions to someone on the witness stand in a court proceeding.
A fishing expedition may refer to asking vague questions to someone on the witness stand in a court proceeding.

Ethically, fishing expeditions are dubious in nature. In a court of law, an attorney can object to questions too vague or broad on the grounds that they are not directly relevant to the case and might lead a witness into making a damaging statement. The judge can sustain it if the attempt clearly appears to be be fishing, or may overrule the objection and allow questioning to continue, usually with a warning to make sure the attorney gets to the point quickly.

In the process of discovery, where people on both sides of a case must share certain kinds of evidence and can submit questions and orders to turn over specific materials, a fishing expedition can be a common tactic. People may not have enough information to feel confident pursuing the matter in court, but might be able to turn something up with a little fishing. They can word questions vaguely in the hopes of tricking someone into making an admission that would help their case, or can broadly interpret orders for documents and other materials to get as much information as possible.

People often use this term in a derogatory way when someone appears to be grasping to pull a case together. The person conducting the fishing expedition usually wants to do so subtly to avoid alerting people to the fact that she doesn't have a strong case or is afraid of information that might turn up in court. In some cases, the other side may use the evidence of a weak case to push for a plea bargain or settlement.

If people suspect a fishing expedition is stepping beyond the scope of the law, they can request intervention from a judge. The judge can review the behavior in question and decide to allow it to go forward, or order the person to stop and issue a warning against future episodes of similar behavior.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

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Discussion Comments


One of these can actually be very prejudicial during a trial. For example, an attorney might ask a question that, if answered, would cause a jury to think less of a defendant. Even if the defendant's attorney objects, the very question could do some damage to the defendant's case.

Yes, the judge can sustain the objection and instruct the jury to ignore the question. But how many jurors will actually be able to ignore the question? By not answering, the jurors might wonder what the defendant is trying to hide. Once a negative impression of the defendant is made, jurors could find it more difficult to see his or her side of the case and reach an impartial decision.


@Melonlity -- that's what objections are for. A party can submit a lot of interrogatories and requests for production to another, but that doesn't mean all of those questions have to be answered and all the documents must be provided.

A party can object to anything unreasonable and a good lawyer will do just that when faced with what amounts to a fishing expedition during the discovery process.


There are times when a fishing expedition is used simply to harass the opposing party in a case. For example, let's say you've got a car wreck case and the defendant is represented by an insurance company. The plaintiff is represented by a lawyer from a small firm that doesn't have a ton of resources to try the case.

The well-funded insurance firm may dump a slew of interrogatories on the plaintiff in an attempt to drive up legal expenses and force a settlement.

Such a practice is unsavory, but it is a common tactic.

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