What is a Service of Process?

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  • Written By: Charity Delich
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 March 2020
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Service of process is a legal term of art used to describe the procedure of giving a person or entity written notice of a legal proceeding brought against them. When legal service of process successfully occurs, a lawsuit is effectively started between a plaintiff and a defendant. Service of process can also occur in criminal cases, where it is used to inform a defendant of criminal charges. Regardless of whether the case is criminal or civil, the service is designed to give a defendant notice of an action as well as an opportunity to respond to the action. Some type of service of process has been adopted by most common law countries as well as most civil law countries.

The term “process” refers to the paperwork actually being given to the defendant. Usually, it consists of both a summons and a complaint. Essentially, a summons informs the defendant that he or she is being sued in a certain court or that criminal charges have been brought. The complaint typically tells the defendant what he or she is being sued for or accused of. It also lists out the type of legal recourse the plaintiff or prosecution is seeking.


Correct service of process must be made on all parties to the lawsuit in most jurisdictions. In many jurisdictions, if a party is not served in line with procedural service of process rules, the party will not by bound to adhere to a court’s decision on the suit. A party who believes he or she has not been properly served can usually challenge the service.

Procedural rules dictate the specifics of how process must be served, and they can differ depending on the jurisdiction and whether the case is criminal or civil. Process is frequently given to the defendant by a service of process agent. Generally, the agent personally hands the process paperwork to the defendant. The process server is usually required to be an adult who is not a party to the lawsuit.

Some jurisdictions permit substituted service, which may include leaving the process papers with an adult who lives with the defendant or mailing the process to the defendant. Service by publication, which involves publishing notice in a particular kind of newspaper, is also permitted in some jurisdictions. Personal service is typically preferred by courts because it best ensures the defendant actually receives notice of the suit.

Defendants usually have a set number of days to respond to the process. If a defendant fails to respond to the process within the allotted time frame, a judgment may be entered against the defendant in civil cases. This is usually referred to as a default judgment, and it often gives the plaintiff the legal recourse requested in the complaint.


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