Service of process is the procedure employed to give legal notice to a person (such as a defendant) of a court or administrative body's exercise of its jurisdiction over that person so as to enable that person to respond to the proceeding before the court, body or other tribunal. Usually, notice is furnished by delivering a set of court documents (called "process") to the person to be served.
Each jurisdiction has rules regarding the means of service of process. Typically, a summons and related documents must be served upon the defendant personally, or in some cases upon another person of suitable age and discretion at the person's residence or place of business or employment. In some cases, service of process may be effected through the mail as in some small claims court procedures. In exceptional cases, other forms of service may be authorized by procedural rules or court order, including service by publication when an individual cannot be located in a particular jurisdiction.
Proper service of process initially establishes personal jurisdiction of the court over the person served. If the defendant ignores further pleadings or fails to participate in the proceedings, then the court or administrative body may find the defendant in default and award relief to the claimant, petitioner or plaintiff. Service of process must be distinguished from service of subsequent documents (such as pleadings and motion papers) between the parties to litigation.
In the past in many countries, people did not have the right to know that there were legal proceedings against them. In some cases, they would only find out when magistrates showed up with the sheriff and seized their property, sometimes throwing them into debtor's prison until their debts were paid. The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution prohibit the federal government and state governments from depriving any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law. Therefore the process server is "serving" the recipient with notice of their constitutional right to due process of the law.
In ancient times, the service of a summons was considered a royal act that had serious consequences. It was a summons to come to the King's Court and to respond to the demand of a loyal subject. In ancient Persia, failure to respond to the King's summons meant a sentence of death. Today the penalty for ignoring a summons may be entry of a default money judgment that can subsequently be enforced.
Service of process in cases filed in the United States district courts is governed by Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In England and Wales, the rules governing service of documents are contained within Part 6 of the Civil Procedure Rules 1998.
Service on a defendant who resides in a country outside the jurisdiction of the Court must comply with special procedures prescribed under the Hague Service Convention, if the recipient's country is a signatory. Service on defendants in many South American countries and some other countries is effected through the Letter Rogatory process. Where a defendant's whereabouts are unknown, the Court may permit service by publication, usually in a newspaper.