Personal process service in the age of COVID-19

Personal service can pose logistical challenges for process servers under normal circumstances, but when are alternative methods of service permissible? It’s a question worth asking as we navigate our way through the COVID-19 pandemic and public health concerns while seeking to uphold due process rights.

A recent analysis of a UK lawsuit, Richard John Slade v Deepak Abbhi, highlighted the tension between personal process service and substituted service, ultimately reinforcing the legal preference for personal service. The ruling made clear that plaintiffs must lay out a clear case for why alternative methods need to be used to serve documents. 

While issues of UK legal practices and expectations certainly play into the case, it provides an opportunity to consider the different ways that process is served – and why personal process is the industry standard. 

Types of process service

Personal service 

Process service has a long history in the United States. The industry has shifted in many ways over the years, but one thing that has remained consistent is personal service as the golden standard for service of process. 

US law mandates that, when legal action is taken against a person in the court of law, each party must be notified via service of process. Personal service requires that the process server directly deliver court documents to a defendant at their home or work. 

It’s considered the most reliable form of service because courts can verify that the party has been served with the relevant documents, especially when the process server has a strongly substantiated affidavit. However, rules and procedures vary from state to state, though, so process servers have to stay current on what’s required of them. 

What about substituted service?

Despite the overwhelming preference for process servers to deliver documents to the individual named, substituted service may sometimes be necessary. Substituted service can be accomplished in several ways.

Release to “a person of suitable age and discretion”

A process server may release service documents with “a person of suitable age and discretion,” which for New Jersey means a cohabiting adult or teenager over the age of 14. As per U.S. Federal Rules, substituted service is only permitted at the residence of the defendant. 

Service by publication

Service by publication may be used when a defendant can’t be located. With service by publication, an official notification is published in a routine newspaper. Depending on the jurisdiction, the notification of service may need to run for a certain period of time to satisfy legal requirements.

Digital service

Efforts to make process service a digital art have been slow compared to other industries, though. While courts have started to catch up with the rest of the world, thanks to e-filing, remote hearings, and the like, online process service hasn’t been as widely embraced as a methodology. 

Email service does have an increasingly established history as a form of substituted service; papers have been served this way since the early 2000s. However, social media is less well charted. Courts have allowed social media serving, but it may take time before it becomes a common practice.  

Requirements for substituted service

Before process servers can turn to substituted service, they have to prove that sufficient effort has been made to personally deliver the documents and that substituted service will achieve the same goal as personal service. The specific requirements to meet this bar may vary from state to state. 

If the case is being made to serve the defendant via social media, they will have to prove that the account is active.

Why personal service still matters

Personal process service has been the benchmark for a century for very good reasons. After all, it’s not the most convenient method for delivering documents. It’s a time-intensive, on-your-feet line of work that, especially during a pandemic. So why does personal service still matter?

When a person has legal action taken against them in the United States, they are guaranteed their day in court. But what if they didn’t know that legal action was pending because a letter got lost in the mail? Or an email got sent to spam and then deleted? 

Personal process service ensures that court documents are delivered to the right person by professionals who are committed to complying with state and federal law. This ensures that they can enjoy their constitutional right to due process. 

Process service isn’t just important for the individual receiving the papers – it’s also imperative for the plaintiff’s side. Without correctly executed service of process, jurisdiction can’t be established over the individual receiving the papers; once an individual is served, they are required to appear in court. If they fail to do so after being served, the plaintiff can request a default judgment against them. 

As technology advances, we may see the opportunity for substituted service to provide the same level of assurance that personal service does. Until then, process servers are trusted with the important work of personal service. To learn more about DGR’s team of professionals, contact us today.

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