Service of Process is the legal term that refers to legal papers being given to a person who is involved in a court case. Properly handling service of process is vital, as the court cannot and will not proceed with a case when there is not good service of process.
Service of process is such an important matter in a court case because of the legal right to “due process” that everyone has in the United States. Essentially, due process means that the government (through its courts in this case) generally cannot take action against a person without affording that person notice and a chance to be heard in court. There are limited exceptions where a court can act without a person receiving that notice first, such as in cases of emergency injunctions or protective orders, but even then the court must schedule a hearing date to quickly give the person a chance to be heard and contest the court’s actions.
There are different kinds of service of process. Personal service refers to having a process server personally give the court papers to their recipient. Personal service is the most common type of service of process used at the beginning of cases, although the court can authorize other types of service in certain circumstances. Depending upon the type of documents to be served, the type of case, and what is happening in the case, sometimes service by mail, fax, or email is appropriate.
In divorce and custody cases, service of process is especially important. As an example, I have had clients who attempted to be their own attorneys in an Iowa divorce case, but who did not properly serve the divorce papers themselves. As a result, some of those clients lost out on a large amount of child support that they could have received for months had the case been handled correctly from the beginning. Others have had to wait longer to be divorced, as the waiting period did not begin to run until the service of process had been completed properly. Luckily those clients eventually retained counsel and we were able to fix the problems going forward.
In civil lawsuits, service of process is also of great importance. Some cases, such as DCFS appeals in Illinois, have very strict service of process requirements that must be followed to avoid a dismissal of the appeal all together.