Any news article which somehow combines the court room with Hollywood easily grabs my attention. This recent story was no exception. It was reported that actor Olivia Wilde was publicly served with court documents whilst making a presentation at a film festival in Las Vegas. The news article was accompanied by a photograph of Ms Wilde, on stage, in front of her audience opening the envelope which had been handed to her. The image of a process server, complete with messenger bag, handing an unexpected bystander a brown envelope in public with a wry "you've been served" is commonplace in American legal dramas (I'm looking at you, The Good Fight!). But is the serving of court documents here in real life quite as exciting as is made out?

Service by Post

Sadly, not. In fact, most court documents do not need to be served personally. Nearly all court rules make provision for documents to be served by recorded delivery post, provided it is a solicitor who is responsible for posting. The documents are posted in a court envelope, which has a notice printed on the front stating that it contains court papers. For an individual, documents can be served by posting them to the person's last known residential address. A company can be served by post at their registered office or a place of business. Generally, there is no requirement to prove that the documents have been signed, far less opened (though, there is some disagreement between Sheriffs as to whether a Track and Trace receipt has to be lodged for claims worth less than £5,000).

For companies who do not operate from their registered office, it is vitally important that there are appropriate measures in place for mail sent to the registered office – particularly mail that arrives in a court envelope – is forwarded to an appropriate person quickly. The same applies to correspondence sent to a place the company operates from but may not have personnel on site who would deal with court papers.


In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, rules were brought in that allowed service of court documents by email. Documents can only be served in this was if the recipient "has indicated to the send that the recipient is willing to received the document". The need for some willingness to be shown means that it is unlikely that unsolicited court papers can be properly served by email. Anyone receiving legal papers by email should, nevertheless, take urgent advice.

Personal Service

Sometimes, though, personal service is required. This is usually because postal service has failed for some reason and the envelope has been sent back to the 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 authority to serve court documents. They can personally serve documents on an individual or, if the person is unavailable, leave them at a place where the person lives or carries on business. Unlike in the American television dramas (and real American film festivals), the officer will usually serve the papers privately and will be accompanied by a witness. Officers can also leave papers for a company in the hands of a person at the company's registered office or place of business. Again, it is important that front of house personnel in particular know what should be done with court envelopes and that there's a process for getting them into the right hands quickly.

Consequences of delay

A delay in dealing with court papers may mean missing important deadlines and, ultimately, might result in court orders being granted against you. Although court orders granted in the absence of a party can usually be set aside when a good explanation can be given for failing to deal with the papers on time, this will usually involve additional time, cost and stress. Better to have processes in place to deal with the papers than rely on a messenger bagged process server telling you that "you've been served"!


Jamie Reekie

Senior Associate & Solicitor Advocate