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This page from the California Courts is emphatic that "it is very important that you, if you are the plaintiff/petitioner or defendant/respondent, do NOT serve your own papers."

Why is it important that "service" be handled by another party?

I have seen lawyers representing counterparties to a case send almost informal requests via Email: E.g., "We intend to send this. Will you accept service?" In which case, presumably, an email accepting that counts before the court as proof of service?

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    Note that this does not apply to other common-law jurisdictions. In England and Wales it is usual to serve by post, but there is nothing to stop a litigant-in-person handing papers to their opponent. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Mar 1 '16 at 6:42
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For service by US mail, they will attach a "proof of service" to the mailed document that contains a declaration by the person who placed it in the mail. (I think other jurisdictions may refer to this as an 'affidavit of mailing.') The e-mail notice is an informal preliminary, not the actual proof of service.

As to the prohibition on party service, it's to discourage fraud and avoid direct confrontation. It's important to comply because if you don't the court lacks personal jurisdiction and any judgment or order issued is void.

Here's a case on it:

Caldwell v. Coppola
219 Cal. App. 3d 859
Court of Appeal, 4th Appellate Dist., 1st Div. 1990

The first Practice Act limited personal delivery of the summons to the sheriff of the county where the defendant may be found...Although the Practice Act was amended to permit private individuals to serve notice, the common law rule consistently prohibited an interested person from personal service on the opposing party...In 1872 the Legislature enacted section 410 limiting personal service to a nonparty or the sheriff of the county where the defendant is found...In prohibiting personal service of process by parties, the current section 414.10 continues the intent of section 410.

The long-standing prohibition on personal service by the opposing party arises from the adversarial interest present in legal actions and the concern for discouraging fraudulent service. "The common law rule was that an interested party could not serve a summons, the policy behind the rule being that an interested party should not be put in a position whereby he might gain an advantage over his antagonist." (Com. (1929) 3 So.Cal.L.Rev. 129.)

Although attorneys are competent to serve process, the prohibition on service by the opposing party is strictly enforced. (See Sheehan v. All Persons(1926) 80 Cal. App. 393 [252 P. 337].) When a party has served notice on the opposing party, the court lacks personal jurisdiction over the defendant. (In re Marriage of Smith (1982) 135 Cal. App.3d 543 [185 Cal. Rptr. 411].) Personal service by a party renders any judgment or order arising from the proceeding void, despite the defendant's actual notice. (Sullivan v. Sullivan (1967) 256 Cal. App.2d 301 [64 Cal. Rptr. 82].[10])
  • Note that the cases cited for those harsh procedural rules are divorce cases. Go figure! :P – daffy Jul 20 '15 at 5:08
  • It sounds like there are some deep and perhaps obsolete legal principles involved here that might have been more obvious a century or two ago. Any idea what "advantage" is alluded to in the common law rule? This all reads vaguely like dueling custom! Keep in mind that, at least under the current CA rules, the server can be a friend or relative of the party giving notice, and there's nothing saying they can't have the party in tow! Besides, how can a court lose personal jurisdiction just because notice was served by a party? (I'll read the cites if you don't have those answers handy) – feetwet Jul 20 '15 at 9:59
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    Service of a summons & complaint doesn't merely give notice, it establishes personal jurisdiction over the defendant. It would not be lost but rather never gained. Personal jurisdiction is an old concept but hardly obsolete. See recent debates over internet jurisdiction. Allowing a friend or relative to make service is likely a compromise as the alternative would presumably require the use of a paid server (or a law enforcement officer, which the states have gone away from out of practicality, although in some cases it's still possible to use the Marshals or sheriffs to serve process). – daffy Jul 20 '15 at 13:10
  • I haven't yet found any coherent explanations of personal jurisdiction. Maybe that will be a separate question.... Regarding the present question: Does the proscription on service apply to subsequent filings in the same matter? E.g., if the counterparty serves a subpoena for a deposition can the court "lose" personal jurisdiction, or at that point can service be direct? – feetwet Jul 20 '15 at 13:55
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    Yes, personal jurisdiction is definitely a subject unto itself, in many ways it's a superset of the concerns around personal service. Google up some law school civil procedure outlines for lots more on that. Defective service of most moving papers after the complaint (and answer) is not so disastrous, though a dispositive (or otherwise important) motion or opposition could be rejected or lost. Refiling may or may not work (procedurally, or for practical reasons of intervening events or timing). No loss of jurisdiction. Party service still not OK. Service is typically by mail after complaint. – daffy Jul 20 '15 at 14:11
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Service of a summons & complaint doesn't merely give notice, it establishes personal jurisdiction over the defendant. It would not be lost but rather never gained. Personal jurisdiction is an old concept but hardly obsolete. See recent debates over internet jurisdiction. Allowing a friend or relative to make service is likely a compromise as the alternative would presumably require the use of a paid server (or a law enforcement officer, which the states have gone away from out of practicality, although in some cases it's still possible to use the Marshals or sheriffs to serve process).

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