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In personam is a Latin phrase that literally means “against the person” or “directed toward a particular person.” It is traditionally used as a legal term that involves a claim against an individual person rather than a company or a local, regional or national entity. An In personam complaint seeks a judgment that is only enforced against a specific person named in the suit. Such a case must begin with a formal service of a summons by an officer of the court and that complaint must then establish the proper jurisdiction of the case. This establishment is crucial to the determination of whether a complaint will be tried in personam, in rem or quasi in rem.
One of the main areas of legal process in which a person would be named as an in personam defendant is in matters of financial remuneration, obligation or obfuscation. This designation means that the judgment is against the particular person and carries the full weight of potential penalties and punishments prescribed by the governing jurisdiction. This fact alone is why such a designation is vitally important to the adjudication of such a case. It directly corresponds with how a case is conducted and how punishment or penalty is meted out. Cases in which the defendant is exonerated of any wrongdoing still carry the designation of a judgment in personam.
For a plaintiff to file a complaint against an individual, the case must be filed in the specific jurisdiction of the defendant. Inexperienced claimants or those who have not procured the services of adequate counsel often make the mistake of filing In personam complaints in a court of their own jurisdiction. Filing the complaint in the jurisdictional court of the defendant is necessary because only the defendant’s jurisdiction is capable of enforcing a judgment In personam should the defendant be found liable or at fault in the proceedings. In contrast, cases that are adjudicated as in rem — a complaint seeking to determine the status of an item of personal or public property — typically must be filed in the jurisdiction in which the property is located.
The fact that the jurisdiction in which a person resides has the power and authority to direct judgment against that person is at the heart of nearly every precept of civil law. It is the foundation that allows for the international reach of such cases. Any claimant residing anywhere in the world may file a complaint in the local or regional jurisdiction of a person who they think has wronged them. For all cases — local or international — other factors such as statute of limitations and the ability of the defendant to exhibit sui juris, or the ability to stand trial with full legal competence, come into play and often inhibit the ability of a case to move forward to trial.