How many proof of service tips have you gotten from court self-help centers? None? Never even heard of it? Well you're not alone; many graduating law students don't know about it either.
Courts are sticklers for proper procedure, and they are nitpicky about making sure everyone has the correct paperwork. Every party has to be properly served with court documents.
Service is the term for proper delivery, and there are certain rules to follow. A form or statement called a "Proof of Service" is the proof that you did things right. There are a number of rules to follow, so pay close attention to some common proof of service blunders. For example:
- Don't serve it yourself. If you're a party to the case, then you can't be the one to serve the papers to the opposing party. Get someone you trust to do it, or hire a process server whose job is to serve people court papers.
- Personal service or service by mail? Courts are very specific about how you serve the papers and who you give them to. Depending on the claim, you have to follow a specific process. Personal service, where someone hand-delivers the papers, is generally preferred. If you serve the papers by mail, you have to follow certain procedures that may be unique to your jurisdiction.
- Wrong date or time. On any proof of service form, the person who serves the papers has to note what day and time the papers were delivered to the party. You have to be specific, because an incorrect date or time can throw into question whether the papers were really served in the first place.
- File it with the court. Alright, the papers have been served and the proof has been filled out. But it doesn't count if you don't actually get it to the court. In most cases, the proof of service must be completed and filed with the court before the hearing begins.
So what if you make a mistake? Your case won't be thrown out; most mistakes can be fixed. You may have to re-serve the papers, file an affidavit explaining and correcting the mistake, or just hang your head and eat some humble pie before the judge.
The specifics of what you have to do can be confusing, and the judge isn't there to help you. With any luck, you'll have an experienced lawyer at your side, which will make the process that much easier.
- 'Timely' Service of Process Should Take Less Than 461 Days (FindLaw's U.S. First Circuit Blog)
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