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Process servers are responsible for assuring that people are notified in a timely and legal fashion that they are required to appear in court. Their clients may include attorneys, government agencies (such as a state's attorney general's office), or any person who files a lawsuit, seeks a divorce, or begins a legal action. As private individuals, process servers occupy a unique position in the legal system: They are court officers, but not court employees; they cannot give legal advice, or practice as attorneys.
A process server's duties are also distinct from that of the sheriff's because process servers serve papers only in civil matters, although the sheriff and constable serve in both civil and criminal matters. Criminal arrest warrants, for example, or papers ordering the seizure of property, are served exclusively by sheriffs, constables, and other law enforcement officials. To ensure that private process servers aren't mistaken for law enforcement officials, most jurisdictions forbid process servers to wear uniforms and badges or to place official-looking emblems on their vehicles.
Process servers use their knowledge of the rules of civil procedure on a daily basis as they carry out their duties. Certain types of papers—for example, a summons or court orders—expire if not served within a certain number of days. Others, such as subpoenas, must be served quickly to allow a witness time to plan or to make travel arrangements. Eviction notices and notices of trustee sales can be posted on the property in certain situations, and writs of garnishments (orders to bring property to the court) require the process server to mail papers as well as serve them.
Besides being aware of the time limits on serving a paper, process servers must know whom they are allowed to serve in a given situation. A summons, for example, can be served directly to the person named or to a resident of the household, provided they are of a suitable age. A court order or a subpoena, on the other hand, can only be served to the person named. Special circumstances also exist for serving minors, people judged to be mentally incompetent, or people who have declared bankruptcy. Many such rules and exceptions exist, and the process server is responsible for making sure that every service is valid by following these rules. An invalid service can cause excessive delays in a case, or even cause a case to be dismissed due to procedural mistakes on the part of the process server. In light of this, many process servers, or the companies they work for, are bonded and carry malpractice insurance.
A process server's job is further complicated by the fact that many people do not want to be served and go to great lengths to avoid it. Much of a process server's time is spent skip-tracing—that is, attempting to locate an address for a person who has moved or who may be avoiding service. The client may provide the process server with some information about the person, such as a last known address, a place of business, or even a photograph of the person, but occasionally process servers have to gather much of this information on their own. Questioning neighbors or coworkers is a common practice, as is using the public information provided by government offices such as the assessor's office, voter's registration, or the court clerk to locate the person. Sometimes, process servers even stake out a home or business to serve papers.
The actual service of the paper is a simple, often anticlimactic process. The process server identifies himself or herself as an officer of the court and tells the person that he or she is being served, then hands the person the documents. If the person won't accept service, or won't confirm his or her identity, the process server will drop papers or simply leave the documents. In the eyes of the court, the person is considered served whether or not they actually touch the papers, sign for them, or even acknowledge the process server's presence.