A service of process agent is a person qualified to personally deliver legal documents to an individual or entity on behalf of the court. The person providing the service must be over the age of 18 and not bea party to the action. In most cases, he or she may be an ordinary citizen, an officer of the court, a deputy of the US Marshal Service or local sheriff, or a registered service of process agent, otherwise known as a professional process server. In the U.S., the rules regarding legal service are generally governed by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, but individual states and courts may provide further guidance as to correct procedure and adequate service, as well as local governments outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. For example, in some countries, service of legal papers must be made by a huissier de justice, which is the equivalent of a bailiff or sheriff.
The primary task of the service of process agent is to deliver a summons or other legal documentation to the person named in the court papers. In order to prove that service has been legally made, the agent must submit a notarized Affidavit of Service to the court that outlines the date, time, and location in which service was made as well as a basic description of the person served. This document then becomes a permanent and integral part of the legal record. In fact, without it, a case may be dismissed or vacated based on the affirmative defense that proof of adequate notice upon the defendant is lacking. An exception to making personal service exists when the party to be served is a corporate entity, organization, or federal agency, in which case substitute service upon a representative or officer may be made.
Most U.S. states subscribe to common law practice when it comes to granting individuals the right to act as a service of process agent. Certain states, however, require that the court must appoint a process server. California, Oklahoma, Arizona, Illinois, Nevada, Montana, Alaska, and Rhode Island, require process servers to be licensed. Some of these states also mandate that a period of training be undertaken, followed by a competency test. In addition, some states require a process server to apply for certification renewal and undergo periodic evaluation by a review board.
While the duties performed by a service of process agent are relatively straightforward, the importance of the role itself should not be overlooked. At one time in history, an individual may have only discovered that a court action was pending against them when their property or personal freedom was taken away, simply because they were not notified of the action. In some regions of the world, failure to answer the court resulted in punishment by death or life imprisonment. Today, the service of process agent provides due notice of “the process” so that the party being served is given adequate time to prepare and answer the complaint or charges laid against them and to obtain legal counsel to represent them in court.