A party to a lawsuit has the right to receive written notice that they are being sued or that a hearing will be held which might affect him in some way. Many rules have been developed to govern what notice needs to be given, and how and when it must be delivered. These are usually contained in court rules and rules of civil procedure.
Service of court papers (also referred to as service of process or service) is the delivery of court papers to a party, witness or other person who has a stake in the case. Every state has detailed laws spelling out just how the papers may be delivered, and by whom. When a person has been provided with formal notice of the filing of a lawsuit (that is, that they are been sued), of a court hearing or trial, or ordering they attend a hearing, trial or deposition, they are said to have been served.
In most cases, the first papers that must be served are the summons and complaint. These documents give the defendant notice that the lawsuit has been filed and what the plaintiff is seeking (for example, a divorce). The court cannot proceed unless the plaintiff properly serves the defendant with these papers. There are five major types of service:
Once the defendant has been served with the summons and complaint, service of most subsequent court papers may be done by mailing them, without the need for an acknowledgment of service form. Some papers, however, such as contempt of court hearing notices and temporary restraining orders must still be formally served. The party being served, however, may voluntarily accept these papers.
After the defendant has been served, defendant usually files an answer or other response and must serve this on the plaintiff; usually it can be served by mail because the plaintiff, by initiating the lawsuit, has already appeared in the case and consented to the court’s power to hear the case.
Service of court papers on a witness (for example, service of a notice telling the witness that his deposition has been scheduled), must usually be done personally; service by mail or publication is almost never sufficient.
The least expensive and most convenient way to satisfy the service requirement is for someone on behalf of the plaintiff to mail the summons and complaint to the defendant and ask defendant to sign, date and return a form acknowledging that process was received. This voluntary acceptance of court papers is called accepting service or acknowledgment of service, and saves the plaintiff from having to pay someone to locate and hand deliver the papers, which is otherwise required if the defendant doesn’t cooperate. In some states, (the federal courts have a similar but more complicated procedure) the failure to accept service voluntarily makes the defendant responsible for the cost of service even if he otherwise wins the case.
It is important to note that proper service of the summons and complaint can be a very complicated matter and is often governed by the particular laws and rules of the courts and jurisdictions involved.