You have been served – Lexology

Any news article that somehow combines the courtroom with Hollywood easily catches my eye. This recent story was no exception. It has been reported that actor Olivia Wilde was publicly handed court documents during a presentation at a film festival in Las Vegas. The press article was accompanied by a photograph of Ms. Wilde, on stage, in front of her audience, opening the envelope given to her. The image of a bailiff, carrying a messenger bag, handing an unexpected passerby a brown envelope in public with a tongue-in-cheek “you’ve been served” is commonplace in American legal dramas (I’m Looking At You, The Good Fight!). But is the service of court documents here in real life as exciting as claimed?

Service by post

Unfortunately not. In fact, most court documents do not need to be served personally. Almost all court rules provide that documents must be served by registered mail, as long as a lawyer does the posting. Documents are mailed in a court envelope, which has a printed notice on the front that it contains court documents. For an individual, documents can be served by mailing them to the person’s last known residential address. A company may be notified by post to its registered office or to its establishment. Generally, it is not necessary to prove that the documents were signed, let alone opened (however, there is some disagreement among sheriffs as to whether a Track and Trace receipt should be filed for claims of worth less than £5,000).

For companies that do not operate from their head office, it is essential that appropriate measures are in place to ensure that mail sent to the head office – in particular mail that arrives in a legal envelope – is quickly forwarded to a person appropriate. The same applies to correspondence sent to a location from which the business operates but may not have staff on site who would process court documents.


In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, rules have been introduced to allow service of court documents by email. Documents can only be served in this case if the addressee “has indicated at the time of delivery that the addressee is willing to receive the document”. The need for some willingness to be shown means that it is unlikely that unsolicited court documents can be properly served by email. Anyone receiving legal documents by email should still take urgent advice.

Personal service

Sometimes, however, personalized service is required. This is usually because the postal service has failed for some reason and the envelope has been returned to court or because the person serving the papers wants to be sure they will be served quickly.

Court officers, known as Messengers at Arms or Sheriff Officers, have the power to serve court documents. They can personally serve documents on a person or, if the person is unavailable, leave them at a place where the person lives or does business. Unlike American television dramas (and real American film festivals), the officer will usually serve the papers in private and be accompanied by a witness. Officers may also leave papers for a corporation in the hands of a person at the registered office or establishment of the corporation. Again, it is important that reception staff in particular know what to do with court envelopes and that there is a process to get them into the right hands quickly.

Consequences of delay

A delay in processing court documents can result in missed important deadlines and ultimately court orders against you. Although orders made in the absence of a party can usually be set aside when a good explanation can be given for not processing the documents on time, this will usually involve additional time, cost and stress. Better to have processes in place to deal with paperwork than to rely on a messenger bag process server telling you that “you’ve been served”!

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