Why Civil Courts Should Improve Defendant Notification

Debt cases in 3 cities highlight the need for service of process reforms

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Why Civil Courts Should Improve Defendant Notification
A close-up view of a cluttered desk strewn with large stacks of paper, a day planner, CD-ROM, and other items. The mess casts a gray shadow on the wall to the left and reflects in the window behind the desk.
Messy piles of paper sit on a desk. Each year, thousands of people are sued and don't participate in their lawsuit. For some, this is because they were never notified, or the documents they received were difficult to understand.
Jan Håkan Dahlström Getty Images


In movies and on television, service of process—the official delivery of legal documents notifying a person that a case has been filed against them—is usually shown as an unpleasant, but relatively common and routine, experience. These fictional depictions typically involve a stranger, the process server, approaching and handing an envelope to a person, saying “You've been served,” and quickly walking away, as the individual receiving the envelope reacts with frustration.

And that scenario is probably fairly true to life: No one enjoys learning that they are being sued. However, being served notice is ultimately better than the reality that thousands of civil defendants experience each year—not receiving the notification they need to respond to a suit against them and often suffering long-lasting consequences as a result.

When service of process fails, which can happen because of misconduct or errors as mundane as a typo, defendants are denied the most basic legal opportunity: to learn about a case against them and take action. When a defendant is not properly notified and fails to respond to a suit, the case can end in a default judgment—an automatic ruling in favor of a plaintiff that often results in harmful financial penalties for the defendant, including wage garnishment and asset seizure. 

To learn more about the effects of service of process breakdowns, not only on defendants but also on the efficiency and equity of court operations, The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Innovation for Justice Program (i4J)—a research workshop jointly housed at the University of Arizona and the University of Utah—interviewed 16 debt case defendants in Akron, Ohio; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Salt Lake City, Utah about their experiences with process service.1 The research team conducted interviews in Oklahoma City and Salt Lake City until additional conversations no longer yielded new information, ultimately stopping at 13. Recruitment challenges in Akron resulted in just three interviews, but the team included them in the analysis because they aligned with the findings from the other two jurisdictions. (Pew has changed all names and ages in this publication to protect the participants’ anonymity.)

The researchers chose these three jurisdictions to allow for a deep dive into local practices and defendant perspectives through which to identify common themes in people’s experiences. Although the results are not necessarily representative and should not be generalized to other communities or regions, they do complement and echo a recently published Pew report that examined service of process in Philadelphia and compares that city with other large urban jurisdictions.2

Pew and i4J focused on debt cases because they represent the most common type of civil case nationally and because most debt defendants do not have attorneys and are more likely than those with lawyers to be affected by complex or ineffective court procedures.3 The team also conducted a quantitative analysis of civil debt case data in the three cities from 2016 through 2019.

The research revealed that when defendants do not receive adequate notification about their case, the problem typically falls into one of two categories:

  • People never receive service, through no fault of their own.
  • People receive service, but the documents do not make clear that the recipient is being sued, contain unfamiliar legal jargon, or lack critical information on the nature of the claim.

These circumstances interfere with individuals’ ability to understand and respond to their cases, show up for court, or fully advocate for themselves. They also create unnecessary delays and waste court and taxpayer resources. For example, when notification fails, plaintiffs may be forced to withdraw a case. In other instances, if a defendant does not respond and the court issues a default judgment, but the defendant later informs the court that service was never made, the case may need to be reopened or the judgment set aside.

Courts have a duty to ensure that all parties can fully engage with a case. By refining the elements of service that they control—including the clarity of forms and the requirements for plaintiffs related to contacting defendants—court administrators can help ensure that people, especially those without attorneys, are able to participate in a lawsuit against them. Specifically, courts could:

  • Take a more active role in case notification. Courts can perform backup notifications of important dates using automated text messages or phone calls, make service documents easier for people without lawyers to understand, and provide clear and accessible guidance on the steps involved in participating in a case.
  • Require that plaintiffs do more to fully notify defendants. Courts can require that individuals and companies filing lawsuits provide robust documentation before a case starts, such as a copy of the original debt contract, to ensure that defendants understand why they are being sued. Courts can also require plaintiffs to demonstrate that they have made legitimate attempts to contact each defendant.

Lawsuits, especially debt collection cases, are often complicated, but the process that notifies defendants and allows them to respond should be simple and efficient for both courts and litigants. Court users must be provided an opportunity to decide whether and how to engage in a case; making sure that defendants know when they are being sued, by whom, and for what is critical to ensuring that all parties can fully participate in the legal process.

How notification works—or does not

Service of process is initiated by the plaintiff pursuing a lawsuit or the plaintiff’s attorney. Service documents may be delivered in person by sheriffs, other county officials, or professional process servers, though in many states, anyone who is not a party in the case can serve the documents. U.S. mail or, in some instances, legal notice in a newspaper, may also be used to notify a defendant, depending on the rules in the jurisdiction where the case is filed. The three cities studied differ slightly in their requirements for who can serve a defendant and by what means, but they all generally allow service in person, by certified mail, or, as a last resort, through publication in a newspaper.

In an ideal in-person service scenario, the process server has a correct, current address for the defendant, who is at home and able to receive the documents. However, in practice, this step can fail in a variety of ways. Sometimes a typo in the address prevents service. In other cases, the person responsible for making service cannot get through building security to deliver the papers.And often, a defendant has moved and the contact information on the service form is out-of-date. This is especially likely in debt cases: It can take months or years for an account to go into collections and even longer before a creditor files a lawsuit.

Although the plaintiff initiates the process, the court dictates the forms that must be used and, thus, the information that must be provided. In all three jurisdictions studied, notification must include two key documents: the complaint and the summons. The complaint provides information about the plaintiff's claim, which in a debt case would include details such as how much is owed and to whom. The summons says that the defendant has been sued and needs to file a response.5 All three jurisdictions require the service documents to explain that if the defendant does nothing, a default judgment will be issued.

In the three cities, the plaintiff files the complaint with the court, which the court then reviews for accuracy; following this, the plaintiff must notify the defendant of the case. In Salt Lake City, under Utah court rules, plaintiffs also have a pre-filing service option using a 10-day summons, which informs the defendant that the plaintiff plans to file a complaint against them in 10 days.6 This is meant to save plaintiffs from paying the filing fee before confirming that they can successfully serve the defendant, but research indicates that, in practice, this option is confusing for defendants and probably contributes to default judgments.7

Once an individual has been served, several processes are put in motion. Courts in the jurisdictions studied require defendants to file a response to the suit to avoid having a default judgment entered against them automatically without a hearing. And in Salt Lake City, defendants who received a 10-day summons also must confirm with the court that the complaint was in fact filed against them after they were served.

Further, in all three jurisdictions, plaintiffs must file a service affidavit proving that they served the defendant, which the court clerk must review and approve before a case can proceed. However, a service affidavit does not ensure that a defendant has received notice. For example, plaintiffs are not required to prove that defendants received the paperwork or share GPS locations and time stamps. Instead, plaintiffs need only state that the documents were delivered to the defendants’ last known address. Additionally, research shows that some plaintiffs engage in what is known as “sewer service”—faking attempts to deliver notice and falsifying service affidavits. And although the data does not suggest that this practice is widespread, when it occurs, it all but guarantees that the defendant will not find out about the lawsuit, virtually ensuring a default judgment for the plaintiff.8

But even when service documents reach a defendant, they may not provide adequate notification. For instance, if a debt has been sold multiple times, the defendant may not recognize the claim or the company taking action against them. And although the summons prompts the defendant to respond to the case, it may not provide clear directions for doing so or may direct the person to a court webpage written in complicated legalese for further instructions. In addition, limited English language proficiency can be another barrier to successful service; of the three jurisdictions in this study, only Salt Lake City requires that summons be provided in both English and Spanish.

Inadequate notification harms defendants and courts

Defendants who receive and understand their service documents can opt to reach out to the plaintiff directly to set up a payment plan, file an answer or counterclaim with the court, or do nothing. But people who are successfully served may also fail to respond to their case or miss court for a variety of other reasons, including difficulty following complicated court processes, not being able to secure childcare or take a day off work, or even living too far from their nearest courthouse.9

However, when service is not made or the documents delivered in the service package are not sufficiently informative, defendants are stripped of their opportunity to make any choice, and the consequences can cause long-term harm to defendants, such as damaged credit, reduced ability to care for themselves and their families, and even loss of housing and other assets.

Notification failures also have implications for courts. For instance, when plaintiffs do not serve a defendant or when the information provided is not sufficient to allow the defendant to engage in the case, judges cannot make decisions based on information from both parties. And although some jurisdictions, such as Utah, have already overhauled their documents and summons language to be clear, easy to understand, and actionable, without complementary efforts to make sure that defendants receive those documents, the changes may not increase court participation. To be effective, service reforms must improve both the delivery of service and the quality and usability of the materials delivered.

Failure of service

If individuals never receive notice of a lawsuit against them, they lose all agency, and appearing in court or responding to a filing against them becomes impossible. Of the 16 defendants interviewed, four said they were never notified of the case against them.

Kathy, a 51-year-old White woman in Salt Lake City, was surprised when, in 2020, she found $150 missing from her paycheck. She knew she had an outstanding bill from an emergency room visit a few years before, but she did not know that the hospital sold her debt to a third-party debt buyer who had filed a civil case against her. Kathy received no paperwork about the case, so she did not know about or show up for a scheduled hearing. She later found out that the service documents were mailed to an old address, where she had not lived for more than two years.

As a result of her failure to appear, the judge entered a default judgment against Kathy, and she only found out about the suit and judgment when her wages were garnished. "The worst part, I think, is when you didn’t even know about it. I don’t think there could be anything worse. I mean, if I had gotten the papers, and I didn’t show up for court, and that was my fault … at least I knew I screwed up,” Kathy said.

"The worst part, I think, is when you didn’t even know about it. I don’t think there could be anything worse."

Kathy, Defendant in Salt Lake City

In another instance in 2020, Nancy, a 26-year-old White Latina who lives in Salt Lake City, learned that she had been sued when her wages began to be garnished. She had been assaulted by her ex-husband and suffered a brain injury, after which she was relocated for her safety and began receiving disability-related payments. A year and a half later, when she returned to work as a medical assistant, she found that around 25% of her wages were being garnished. After reaching out to the plaintiff, Nancy discovered that service had been made to someone at her old address, where she lived at the time of the assault, and that the plaintiff was suing for an outstanding debt on a credit card that Nancy says was opened in her name without her knowledge. (Both Kathy and Nancy were able to identify the plaintiffs from the garnishment documents they received from their employers.)

Through the garnishments, Nancy has almost paid off the debt, and although she wanted to fight the case in court, she said, “At this point, I just have no time or ability to do that, so I just kind of threw my hands up with it.” Nancy also mentioned that because she is already involved in a criminal case against her husband for the assault and has a lawyer, she could have easily participated in this lawsuit had she known about it earlier.

Kathy and Nancy’s experiences are illustrative and align with previous Pew research, which found that between 2010 and 2019, more than 70% of civil debt collection suits in several jurisdictions ended in default judgment.10 And the consequences are serious, occasionally even leading to incarceration. But the most common impacts are financial: wage garnishments; high costs, such as for interest accrued on the debt, plaintiff’s court and legal fees, as well as defendants’ own court fees, that can exceed the amount of the original debt; and ruined credit scores that harm people’s ability to obtain housing, loans, or automobiles for years.11 These financial consequences can be far more severe than merely having a debt in collections, especially for families already struggling to make ends meet. For example, when her wages were garnished, Kathy had to take out personal loans to pay for her basic living expenses. Eventually, she found herself deep in debt and is now filing for bankruptcy. Other interviewees reported leaving jobs to avoid garnishments and negative impacts on their credit.

In 2009, Jane, a 30-year-old White woman from Oklahoma City, took her sick husband to the emergency room where he was treated for an upper respiratory infection. About five years later, the couple received a letter in the mail saying that they owed about $8,000 for the ER visit. They immediately contacted the hospital and were told the debt was already in collections. However, the situation had progressed farther than even the hospital realized.

In fact, the debt collector had already received a default judgment against Jane and her husband—without them ever receiving any notice of a suit—and had approval from the court to garnish his wages. The same day they got the letter also happened to be the day Jane’s husband received his first paycheck with money missing.

Jane does not know why they never received notice of the lawsuit. They have lived at the same location since well before her husband’s illness, and they are now working with legal aid to dispute the case based on their income level and to possibly access a grant for low-income families. But the judgment has already harmed her husband's credit and, she says, “even with insurance now, he does not want to go [to the doctor] because of the experience.”

Had she known about the suit and about the time and date of her hearing, Jane says she would have attended court or reached out to the plaintiff to set up a payment plan, which could have saved her and her husband considerable time and possibly prevented the damage to their credit. Her participation also might have spared court resources to a case that could have been easily handled without its involvement.

Debt claim data from Salt Lake City and Oklahoma City tracks with Kathy’s and Jane’s experiences. Cases in those jurisdictions follow an unfortunate national trend: The overwhelming majority end in default judgment. Among cases filed from January 2016 through December 2019, default judgments made up 60% of case outcomes in the District 7 Court of Oklahoma County, which includes Oklahoma City, and 69% in the 3rd Judicial District of the Utah State Court, which includes Salt Lake City.12

The interviews indicated that these harmful service failures happen for various reasons. The four interviewees who reported not being notified cited service documents sent to a previous address, unreliable mail carriers, and service documents accepted by someone other than the defendant. For example, Bruce, a 60-year-old White man in Akron, had three cases filed against him, but only received notice of one because of a “very bad mailman.” Fortunately, the paperwork he did receive included information about legal help, so when he reached out to a legal aid organization, his legal aid attorney discovered the other two cases. Bruce’s lawyer was able to get two of his cases dismissed because Bruce's sole income is Social Security—which is protected from litigation by federal law and cannot be garnished—and is working on the third one.

Ineffective documents

Among the interviewees who were served, some reported being confused by the experience of being served and by the documents they received.

When Hannah, a 40-year-old multiracial woman in Oklahoma City was sued, she did not recognize the creditor listed as the plaintiff on the service documents she received. As in Nancy's case, the responsibility to find more information about the debt and the lawsuit fell on the defendant, Hannah, rather than on the plaintiff. Hannah reached out to the law firm representing the plaintiff for more information, at which point she learned that her student loan debt—which she acknowledges owing—had been sold multiple times. However, she says the documentation she received from the firm, which could easily have been included with her service documents, was "vague" and did not draw a clear line from the original lender to the plaintiff, leaving her unable to confirm that the plaintiff owned the debt and had standing to sue her for it.

Hannah ultimately attended the court hearing, and the judge sent her to negotiate a payment plan with the plaintiff's attorney directly, but she says the plaintiff still has not provided definitive evidence showing that they own the debt. "I’ve had so many people say, you know, we’re here to collect, but everybody can’t be collecting on the same debt." As a result, she now changes jobs frequently to avoid garnishments and is choosing to "stay off the radar" indefinitely to avoid financial consequences.

Service documents can be confusing for many reasons. For instance, Judith, a woman in Salt Lake City, was served in person in 2019. She says when she asked the process server what was happening, he told her to sign for receipt and to do what the summons said. But she describes the documents as unclear and “several pages long … I didn’t even know who I had to go to [in order] to file this.” The documents did not include a court date because, unbeknownst to Judith, Salt Lake City only schedules hearings after a defendant responds.13 So, lacking clarity from the service documents about what to do, Judith became “overwhelmed” and “panicked” and so did not file a response. A default judgment was entered against her, and her wages were garnished. After that, she reached out to the creditor directly to set up a payment plan—a step she did not initially understand she could take.

“I didn’t even know who I had to go to [in order] to file this.”

Judith, Defendant in Salt Lake City

Another source of confusion can be jurisdictions’ own procedures for case filing, notification, and response. (See Figure 1.) In Oklahoma and Ohio, a plaintiff must first file a complaint with the court, after which the court clerk issues a summons, and the defendant is supposed to receive both. In Oklahoma, a defendant has 20 days after being served to file an answer or a default judgment will be entered against them.14 In Ohio, that deadline is 28 days.15 And in Utah, the plaintiff can choose to notify the defendant either before or after filing the complaint with the court. For service before filing, the plaintiff serves the defendant with a 10-day summons—a bilingual notice of the lawsuit—and a copy of the complaint that the plaintiff plans to file, which must then be done within 10 days.16 And for service after filing, the plaintiff sends the defendant the already-filed complaint, a summons, and a bilingual notice. In either case, the defendant technically has 20 days from the date service is made to file a response. However, if the plaintiff chooses the 10-day summons option, the defendant must allow at least 14 days after receiving that summons for the plaintiff to file and the court to process the complaint, cutting the defendant’s time to respond to just seven days. (If no complaint has been filed after 14 days, the defendant does not have to do anything.)17

When defendants feel empowered to take next steps, they do

Defendants who receive notice of a lawsuit against them and understand the service documentation report feeling empowered to take next steps and can choose to negotiate an agreement with the plaintiff in or outside of court, appear in court to defend themselves, or even ignore the case and do nothing. For defendants, engaging in debt litigation often means picking the best of multiple unfavorable outcomes. But those who participate in their cases may be able to find a path toward resolution of their debt and avoid the most serious financial consequences of a court judgment, such as loss of housing and bankruptcy.

In interviews, the people who participated in their cases cited a variety of reasons for filing a response and appearing in court. Some said they were afraid not to. Others did not believe they owed the debt and went to contest the claim. Many said that they simply wanted a resolution, and several cited multiple factors. But whatever their reasons, their answers clearly demonstrated that they were only able to make the decision to engage with their case because they had been notified and understood what to do next.

For instance, Susan in Oklahoma City reported that when she was served in person, she went into "panic mode," but that the summons and complaints were "pretty clear." She sought help online, learned about civil legal aid, and received advice on next steps. She said her lawyer was "really nice" and helped her identify which documents and letters to send. Susan attended court alone, and the judge had her negotiate a payment plan directly with the plaintiff’s attorneys. Susan’s only income is Social Security and workers' compensation, and she does not have enough money to make payments. As a result, her debt is still accumulating interest and fees, but because the service of process worked as intended and she was able to take steps to resolve her case, Susan is now positioned to start paying down her debt when her earnings support it.

Some defendants who received adequate notification were able to reach resolutions outside of court. For example, Louisa, a 21-year-old multiracial woman in Akron, was served and contacted the plaintiff to set up a payment plan before the hearing, and Marie, a Latina woman in Oklahoma City, was able to pay off her debt with the help of her parents. Another interviewee, Lucy, a 22-year-old Pacific Islander from Salt Lake City, knew that she would not be able to pay down the $15,000 debt she incurred from a family business. After she received notice via mail, she explored and ultimately pursued bankruptcy relief with the help of lawyers and called the plaintiff and the court to let them know. Since filing for bankruptcy, she has had problems getting a car loan and phone service, but she says that she still feels confident that she made the right decision and that having a clean slate moving forward is motivating.

In addition, some interviewees who were adequately notified chose not to engage with their cases. A common theme among this group was the belief that participating in the case would not change the outcome. For example, Bethany, a 50-year-old White woman from Salt Lake City, said, “It wasn’t a matter of whether or not we owed the money. It was just we didn’t know where it was going to come from.” A default judgment was entered against her, her wages began to be garnished, and she ultimately filed for bankruptcy. Despite the unfortunate outcome, Bethany—and other defendants like her—made their decisions with a full understanding of the circumstances and options, as well as the probable consequences of their choices.

Courts can facilitate effective engagement

Perfect participation in the civil legal system may not be attainable. But litigants should always have the information they need—such as why they are being sued; what to do next; and where to find forms, legal help, and other support—to choose whether to engage in the court process and to effectively participate if they opt to do so. Otherwise, litigants are denied the chance to receive a fair and impartial outcome, and judges make decisions without hearing all sides. 

Courts can help ensure that all litigants know about and can fully engage with a case by updating court processes and requiring more from plaintiffs. The interviewees and several state examples offer promising reforms, which—although more research is needed to gauge their effectiveness—have the potential to improve notification with relative ease and at minimal costs in terms of court time and resources.

As a first step, courts need to examine their processes to identify what is preventing engagement. For example, after reviewing the state courts’ existing materials as well as data on English proficiency and literacy among the state population, Utah officials determined that their summons forms were not easily understandable for many state residents. So, in 2020, Utah adopted new statewide summons forms for debt collection cases that are written at a sixth-grade reading level; by contrast, summons in Oklahoma City are written are at an 11th-grade reading level, and those in Akron are at an eighth-grade level.18 Utah also updated the form with simplified URLs and QR codes that direct defendants to the Utah State Courts’ Self-Help Center website.

However, Pew’s researchers reviewed the percentage of defendants who filed an answer the year before, the year of, and the year after state adoption of the new form and found that in 2021, that percentage increased by just 1.6%. This finding further demonstrates that, to be effective, changes to processes must be paired with parallel efforts to address other underlying service-of-process issues, such as timelines to respond and defendants’ access to information and legal help.19

Update court processes

By implementing minor process changes, courts can ensure that defendants receive notice of a case against them. Adopting a service-of-process checklist, for example, is a simple way that courts can prevent cases from proceeding unless and until all parties are properly notified.20

Mandate easy-to-understand service documents

Requiring that all service forms use plain language and avoid legal jargon can help encourage responses from defendants and prevent default judgments. For instance, a recently redesigned evictions summons form in Cincinnati uses plain language to explain what could happen if the tenant ignores the eviction: “You could be given seven days or less to leave your home. If you do not file an answer, the landlord may win a judgment against you for all the money they claim you owe. If you don’t go to court, your landlord can evict you automatically.” The summons also includes information on who is suing the tenant and why; where and when a hearing will be held; the potential consequences of a default judgment; and four steps the defendant should take to get help, including how to secure a lawyer and get rental assistance, as well as a photo of the courthouse to help the defendant know where to go.21 And when technical legal or statutory language is required, Cincinnati’s summons provides those phrases in all caps to emphasize them for the defendant.

Bruce, the defendant from Akron, noted that his service documents contained legal aid information, which he described as “a godsend.” Defendants who were able to get legal help had better overall outcomes: Their lawyers were able to help arrange payment plans, answer questions about filing for bankruptcy, or get their cases dismissed.

Use text or phone reminders

Criminal and civil courts in several states are using text reminders to increase case participation.22 Such reminders can supplement service of process and function as an important backup notification if service fails. Nancy from Salt Lake City noted, “A phone call would’ve been nice … I mean, if you have enough information that you can take them to court and get a garnishment, you should at least have a phone number on file, you know?”

Update court rules to ensure that defendants know their rights

Several states allow defendants who were not properly served to file a simple motion to have a judgment set aside—that is, invalidated by the court.23 And some states permit defendants to make such a request long after a judgement is issued. For instance, Maine and South Carolina give defendants a year to file the required motion.24

The three jurisdictions studied in this analysis all allow a judgment to be set aside for improper service, though only Oklahoma statutorily specifies service failures as a reason for a change in ruling.25 However, none of the interviewees who were not served knew that they might be able to have the judgment waived, which suggests better information is needed.

To ensure that defendants are aware that a default judgment can be set aside if they can prove that they were never served, courts can partner with community organizations to conduct outreach and hold sessions to help defendants complete the necessary forms. Courts can also update their websites to provide a clear breakdown of the rules and procedures for requesting a case review.

Court Websites Need Improvement to Better Support Defendants

Defendants who receive service papers may go to the court's website to access the forms needed to respond, but poor online wayfinding can make it difficult for people to locate what they need, exacerbating any potential confusion. For example, Akron's Municipal Court website has a list of forms that include "answer" in their title but no information about which forms defendants can use to respond to a case or which legal defenses can be raised in their case.26 And in Oklahoma, although the state court website has a list of forms, it does not specify which forms to use for which purpose.27

In Salt Lake City, defendants can access the form for answering a suit through the Utah courts’ website, which is mostly written in plain language and outlines defense options.28 However, it does include some specialized terms—such as “laches, estoppel or unclean hands” and “res judicata”—that people without legal training probably would not know.

When asked about what or who they found helpful in determining next steps, none of the interviewees cited a court website, despite two saying they looked for information online.

Require more from plaintiffs

Courts can implement reforms that stop unethical practices, such as sewer service, and require plaintiffs to verify the debts they are seeking to recoup to help address notification problems and facilitate more engagement with the court.

Require additional documentation of debt before a case starts

A handful of states require that third-party debt buyers include information demonstrating the legitimacy of the debt in every complaint. In Massachusetts and North Carolina, for example, all complaints must include a copy of the original debt contract, each assignment or sale of the debt, and an itemized accounting of the amount owed.29 Requiring that this information be provided up front, rather than putting the burden on the defendant to request the details, like Hannah had to do, can improve defendants’ understanding of why they’re being sued and help ensure that courts have the evidence they need to validate complaints and debts before issuing a ruling. It can also give the court the opportunity to authenticate a case even before a defendant is notified, saving people and courts time, resources, and needless stress.

And states can also take steps to streamline the validation process, such as by instituting a checklist to help clerks ensure that all required documentation has been provided with a complaint in advance of a judicial review, as Wisconsin has done.30

Require address verification 

Mandating that plaintiffs verify defendants’ addresses before service improves the odds that people will receive notice and helps prevent sewer service.31 For instance, Kathy never received service, despite having last moved more than two years before the suit, because the plaintiff served her prior address—where she had lived at the time she incurred the debt—and then erroneously certified that she had been notified.

Some jurisdictions are implementing reforms to ensure addresses are accurate. For example, New York City requires process servers to use GPS to document their location when attempting to deliver documents.32 And in Massachusetts, plaintiffs must use an address that has been verified within three months of notice, making it more likely that documents will be delivered to the defendant’s current address.33

In addition to ensuring an accurate address, clerks and judges also need to take an active role in reviewing address verification forms and service affidavits. As Kathy says, “This shouldn’t be how the system works. The judge should have … made sure … they really tried to find me instead of just [allowing] them to go in and garnish me with no notice, no nothing, no warning, no anything. That’s wrong, and it shouldn’t happen.”


Service of process is often the first time a defendant learns about a lawsuit against them. And if it does not happen or somehow goes wrong, or if the papers served are difficult to understand, people cannot effectively participate in their court case. Reforming service offers courts an opportunity to evaluate processes and rules that contribute to inefficiency or cause inequity.

Interventions, such as requiring documentation of a debt and simplifying service documents, would be relatively easy for courts to implement and could produce more just and accurate outcomes for court users.

Appendix: Methodology

The research for this brief consisted of an analysis of the policies governing service in the District Court of Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, District 7; Akron Municipal Court of Akron, Ohio; and the Third Judicial District of the Utah State Court in Salt Lake City; qualitative interviews with defendants in debt claims suits; and quantitative analyses of court docket data.

The researchers identified relevant statutes, rules, and documents governing service of process in the three jurisdictions through court websites and Westlaw. The Pew team then interviewed one or two court officials in each jurisdiction to verify the results of that search and get more context on the policies.

Next, the researchers conducted seven 30-minute, virtual, semistructured interviews in Oklahoma City, six in Salt Lake City, and three in Akron (recruitment challenges limited the number of participants in Akron) to gather information about people’s experiences with service, whether they filed a response with the court after being served, and what influenced their decisions about responding. The researchers recruited the interviewees through online advertisements and community organizations, such as legal aid. Local organizations received a flyer asking them to recruit individuals, and legal aid offices directly connected the researchers with clients who were willing to participate. Of the interviewees who provided their demographic information, the majority were non-Hispanic White; women; employed full or part time; and made less than $35,000 a year. All interviewees received a $40 gift card via email as compensation for their participation in the research.

The researchers used NVivo software to code the interviews according to a preset list of codes they developed for this purpose. They applied the codes to two interviews and then reassessed to add themes where needed. Once finalized, the codebook was tested for intercoder reliability.

Finally, the researchers analyzed available data on debt claims cases that were filed in the three jurisdictions between Jan. 4, 2016, and Dec. 31, 2019. Data limitations, such as inconsistent coding in case management systems or, in the case of Akron, no way to determine case outcomes, made it impossible to analyze the relationship between plaintiff type, type of service, and outcome. In each jurisdiction, after cleaning plaintiff names to ensure that they were spelled correctly, the researchers identified the types of dispositions the top eight filers received, how much they filed for, and how much they received. 

External reviewers

This brief benefited from the insights and expertise of Kathryne Young, professor of law at the George Washington University Law School, and April Kuehnhoff, staff attorney in the National Consumer Law Center. Although they reviewed various drafts and the findings, neither they nor their organizations necessarily endorse the conclusions.


This report was developed by Casey Chiappetta of Pew and Stacy Butler and Mackenzie Pish of the Innovation for Justice Program at the University of Arizona. Taraleigh Davis, doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, freelance researcher David McNeill, and Seth McNeill, associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, conducted the data analysis.

The project team thanks current and former Pew colleagues Joshua Alvarez, Maureen Bowers, Sophie Bryan, Justine Calcagno, Jennifer Clendening, Jennifer V. Doctors, Michael Freeman, Katie Martin, Nina Morales, Matt Moser, and Mabel Yu for their thoughtful suggestions, production assistance, and research guidance and support.


  1. Interviewees had the option to provide their demographic information, such as age, race, gender, employment status, and income band. Although this study does not examine age, race, gender, or other disparities, this information is provided to give the reader a picture of the interviewees and to illustrate the degree to which the processes described cut across demographic groups.
  2. The Pew Charitable Trusts, “How Debt Collection Works in Philadelphia’s Municipal Court” (2022), https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/2022/10/how-debt-collection-works-in-philadelphias-municipal-court.
  3. The Pew Charitable Trusts, “How Debt Collectors Are Transforming the Business of State Courts” (2020), 13, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/2020/05/how-debt-collectors-are-transforming-the-business-of-state-courts. “Consumers, however, typically have legal representation in less than 10 percent of debt claims. Studies from 2010 through 2019 show that the share of debt claim defendants who were served—that is, provided with official notification of the suit against them—who had an attorney ranged from 10 percent in Texas to zero in New York City.”
  4. J. Kaplan, “Thousands of D.C. Renters Are Evicted Every Year. Do They All Know to Show up to Court?,” news release, Oct. 5, 2020, https://dcist.com/story/20/10/05/thousands-of-d-c-renters-are-evicted-every-year-do-they-all-know-to-show-up-to-court/.
  5. Ohio, Process: Summons, Civ.R. 4 (2020), https://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/docs/LegalResources/Rules/civil/CivilProcedure.pdf; Oklahoma Stat. Tit. 12, § 2004 (2022), https://www.oscn.net/applications/oscn/DeliverDocument.asp?CiteID=94862; Utah URCP Rule 4 (2022), https://www.utcourts.gov/rules/view.php?type=urcp&rule=4.
  6. Utah Courts, “Ten Day Summons,” accessed December 20, 2022, https://legacy.utcourts.gov/howto/filing/summons/docs/1017GE_Ten_Day_Summons.pdf; Utah URCP Rule 3, https://www.utcourts.gov/rules/view.php?type=urcp&rule=3#:~:text=Rule%203%20constitutes%20a%20significant,defendant%20pursuant%20to%20Rule%204.
  7. Utah Bar Foundation, “Utah Bar Foundation Report on Debt Collection and Utah’s Courts” (2022), https://www.utahbarfoundation.org/static/media/UBF2022.912d30c10e5681bf5f8c.pdf.
  8. MFY Legal Services Inc. Consumer Rights Project, “A Preliminary Analysis of the Exceptionally Low Appearance Rate by Defendants in Lawsuits Filed in the Civil Court of the City of New York” (2008), http://mobilizationforjustice.org/wp-content/uploads/reports/Justice_Disserved.pdf.
  9. D.A. Hoffman and A. Strezhnev, “Longer Trips to Court Cause Evictions” (working paper, University of Pennsylvania, PNAS, 2022), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4130696.
  10. The Pew Charitable Trusts, “How Debt Collectors Are Transforming the Business of State Courts,” 2.
  11. Ibid., 17-19.
  12. Data was provided through data-sharing agreements with the Legal Services Corp. in Oklahoma City, which pulled data from the court’s public records, and between i4J and the Utah State Court System for Salt Lake City.
  13. Utah Courts, “Default Judgments,” accessed Dec. 21, 2022, https://www.utcourts.gov/en/legal-help/legal-help/procedures/filing/default-judgment.html.
  14. Oklahoma Stat. Tit. 12, § 2012 (2004), https://www.oscn.net/applications/oscn/DeliverDocument.asp?CiteID=94873.
  15. Ohio Civ.R. 4. Form 1. Caption and Summons (1970), https://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/docs/LegalResources/Rules/civil/CivilProcedure.pdf.
  16. Utah Courts, “Ten Day Summons.”
  17. Utah URCP Rule 3.
  18. Researchers checked summons forms for each jurisdiction using Hemingway Editor, which identifies documents’ reading grade level.
  19. The research team analyzed debt collection cases in Utah between May and November 2019, 2020, and 2021 to determine how many defendants filed answers to the complaints before and after the state adopted the new summons form. The team found that the new forms did not necessarily correlate with an increase in defendant responses: In 2019, the answer rate was 9.2%; in 2020, it was 7.8%, and in 2021, 9.4%.
  20. This recommendation parallels one by NCSC. See: National Center for State Courts, “Key Steps and Tools to Implement Now to Ensure the Fair and Efficient Handling of Consumer Debt Actions” (2020), https://www.ncsc.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0032/55499/Ensure-Fair-and-Efficient-Handling-of-Consumer-Debt-Actions.pdf.
  21. Legal Design Lab at Stanford University, “Eviction Summons Redesign in Cincinnati, OH,” Jan. 28, 2020, https://evictioninnovation.org/2020/01/28/summons-cincinnati/.
  22. Maine Hagan, “If You Text Them, Will They Come?” (2019), https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/BTB25-5B-01.pdf.
  23. The Aspen Institute, “A Financial Security Threat in the Courtroom: How Federal and State Policymakers Can Make Debt Collection Litigation Safer and Fairer for Everyone” (2021), 24, https://www.aspeninstitute.org/publications/how-unpaid-bills-end-up-in-court/.
  24. Maine Courts, Relief from a Judgment or Order, Me. R. Civ. P. 60 (2007), https://www.courts.maine.gov/rules/text/MRCivPPlus/RULE%2060.pdf; South Carolina Judicial Branch, Default, 55(a) (1999), https://www.sccourts.org/courtreg/displayRule.cfm?ruleID=55.0&subRuleID=&ruleType=CIV; South Carolina Judicial Branch, Relief from Judgment or Order, 60b (1998), https://www.sccourts.org/courtreg/displayRule.cfm?ruleID=60.0&subRuleID=&ruleType=CIV; M. Courts, Default, Me. R. Civ. P. 55 (2022), https://casetext.com/rule/maine-court-rules/maine-rules-of-civil-procedure/judgment/rule-55-default.
  25. Utah State Courts, “Motion to Set Aside Default or Judgment,” accessed Dec. 1, 2022, https://www.utcourts.gov/en/self-help/case-categories/consumer/judgment/set-aside.html#:~:text=A%20Motion%20to%20Set%20Aside,judgment%20had%20not%20been%20made; Oklahoma Stat. Tit. 12, § 2004 (2022); Oklahoma Stat. Tit. 12 § 1031.1 (1999), https://www.oscn.net/applications/oscn/DeliverDocument.asp?CiteID=94346; Ohio, Relief from Judgment or Order, Civ.R. 60 (2022), https://casetext.com/rule/ohio-court-rules/ohio-rules-of-civil-procedure/title-vii-judgment/rule-60-relief-from-judgment-or-order; Ohio, Default, Civ.R. 55 (2022), https://casetext.com/rule/ohio-court-rules/ohio-rules-of-civil-procedure/title-vii-judgment/rule-55-default
  26. The Municipal Court of Akron, Ohio, “Forms,” accessed Nov. 17, 2022, https://akronmunicipalcourt.org/forms-rules/forms/.
  27. OKLaw.org, “Self-Help Forms,” Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, accessed November 17, 2022, https://oklaw.org/self-help-forms?page=1; ibid.; Oklahoma State Courts Network, “Forms,” accessed Dec. 1 2022, https://www.oscn.net/v4/quicklinks/.
  28. Utah Courts, “Answer: Debt Collection Case,” accessed Nov. 17, 2022, https://www.utcourts.gov/howto/answer/docs/1013GE_Debt_Collection_Answer.pdf.
  29. North Carolina Gen. Stat. § 58-70-115. (1979), https://www.ncleg.net/EnactedLegislation/Statutes/HTML/BySection/Chapter_58/GS_58-70-115.html; Massachusetts R. Civ. P. 8.1 (2018), https://www.mass.gov/rules-of-civil-procedure/civil-procedure-rule-81-special-requirements-for-certain-consumer-debts; Supreme Court of the State of Illinois, Modified Rule 280 (2018), https://ilcourtsaudio.blob.core.windows.net/antilles-resources/resources/986f65b0-b0fd-423d-a717-640fa5c1d571/062618_3.pdf.
  30. State of Wisconsin Circuit Court, La Crosse County, “Sufficiency of Consumer Credit Complaint Checklist,” accessed Nov. 17, 2022, https://lacrossecounty.org/docs/default-source/clerk-of-courts/consumercreditcomplaintchecklist.pdf?sfvrsn=c6fb101d_2.
  31. MFY Legal Services Inc. Consumer Rights Project, “A Preliminary Analysis.”
  32. New York City Consumer and Worker Protection, “Information for Process Server Industry,” accessed Nov. 17, 2022, https://www.nyc.gov/site/dca/businesses/info-process-servers.page#gpsdevice.
  33. Massachusetts R. Civ. P. 8.1(E) (2018), https://www.mass.gov/rules-of-civil-procedure/civil-procedure-rule-81-special-requirements-for-certain-consumer-debts#-e-affidavit-regarding-address-verification.
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