How Do I Substitutionally Serve Someone with Legal Documents?

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Rule 6-3 of the Supreme Court Family Rules requires that a person being sued be notified about the court proceeding and be formally served with copies of the Notice of Family Claim. This is called personal service.

Personal service is normally accomplished by getting another adult (not the one who’s making the claim) to physically hand a copy of the Notice of Family Claim to the respondent; really, the documents only need to touch the respondent's body. This is not always possible. If you do not know where the person you want to sue lives, or if that person is avoiding being served, you may have to apply to court for an order that gives you permission to personally serve the respondent using an alternative method. Rule 6-4 talks about the process for alternative methods of service, also known as substituted service. Someone who receives substituted service is said to be substitutionally served.

Applying for an order for substituted service[edit]

If the person you’re trying to sue is hard to find, or is evading your efforts to serve them, you must get the court's permission before the court will accept any other means of service.

For BC Supreme Court proceedings, once you have filed your Notice of Family Claim, you can apply for an order for substituted service. You can do this by desk order, which involves getting the registry to send your request for an order to a judge, without having to appear before the judge yourself. To do this, you need to prepare and file at the registry:

  • a Requisition for Consent Order or Order Without Notice in Form F29
  • your Affidavit in Form F30
  • a draft Order Made Without Notice in Form F34

The requisition will describe the order that you want the court to make and your affidavit will set out the reasons why personal service is impossible. Since the documents you file are all that a judge will see in a desk order application, you need to be thorough, and the judge will not allow the application if they don’t think you have made a sufficient degree of effort.

What should your application include? If service is not possible because you don't know where the respondent is, you should say so. You should also state whether or not you have means of contacting the respondent, for example, through family or friends. If you can't serve the respondent because they are avoiding service, you should describe how you've tried to serve the respondent and how often you've tried. If you hired a process server, and that was not successful, include details and evidence of that effort in your affidavit.

Your application should also present a plan for how substituted service should be done, whether that’s:

  • sending the materials to an email address you know they use,
  • leaving the materials with a friend, employer, or family member of the respondent whom you have reason to believe will get their attention,
  • mailing it to an address there’s a valid reason to think they will receive it,
  • by advertisement in a newspaper classifieds, assuming you have some idea what region they are in, or
  • if options are truly limited, by asking to be allowed to post it in the registry.

Because the respondent hasn't been served, you can make your application for a desk order without having to follow the usual rules that give the respondent time to reply to your application.

Options for substituted service[edit]

Posting in the registry[edit]

If you have no idea at all where the respondent might be, you can ask the judge to allow you to serve the respondent by posting a copy of your Notice of Family Claim in the court registry for a certain period of time, usually no less than 30 days. This is the cheapest means of alternative service, and you really have to show that you've got no idea where the respondent is, no relatives or friends to contact them through, and no idea where the respondent works.

If the court grants this order, the court will specify how long the Notice of Family Claim must remain posted. Your job will be to take the judge's order and a copy of your Notice of Family Claim to the court registrar. The registrar will arrange for the posting, take note when it was put up, and take note when it was taken down.

Notices in the classified ads[edit]

Legal notices ad for substituted service

If you have a general idea of where the respondent might be (in Vernon, in the Peace District, or in the Lower Mainland, for example) you can ask the court for an order that you serve the respondent by posting an ad in the legal notices section of the area's local paper. The judge will usually specify the newspaper and the number of issues the ad must be run in.

An example of this means of substituted service under the old Rules of Court appears at right. In this ad, the plaintiff (claimant) J.H.H. is suing the defendant (respondent) I.L. for orders involving the care and control of a child, child support, and probably other relief. (Note that in the course of making the order for substituted service in this example, the judge hearing the application also made other orders relating to child support, and custody and guardianship of the child. This is a bit unusual. Normally the courts will not make those sorts of orders without notice to the other party, even if that party's whereabouts are unknown.) You can see how this ad:

  • advises the defendant of the fact of the lawsuit, and provides important information about the style of cause, the court registry, and the court file number,
  • states the terms of the order for substitutional service (posting in one issue of the weekend newspaper),
  • tells them how to get a copy of the plaintiff's materials, and
  • gives the name and contact information for the lawyer representing the plaintiff.

Under Rule 6-4(3), newspaper ads must be in Form F11. This form looks a bit different than the example given here.

Be wary of pursuing this means of substituted service: the costs can be quite high, as newspapers sometimes charge special rates for legal notices. The example on the right, which came from an old issue of the Vancouver Sun, probably cost between $400 and $550.

Service through friends, relatives and employers[edit]

You may know another way by which the court proceeding can be brought to the respondent's attention with a fair degree of certainty. The court may allow service to occur through a third party, providing that there is reason to believe that the respondent has a fair amount of contact with the third party and that the third party can be relied on to bring the proceeding to the respondent's attention. Typical examples are:

  • through the respondent's work (co-workers or employers, who will probably be in contact with the respondent),
  • through family (a relative that you know the respondent keeps in touch with),
  • through friends (friends who see the respondent on a pretty regular basis), and
  • through the respondent's residence (a landlord or other people sharing the respondent's apartment).

If you are certain that leaving your materials with one of these people will ensure that your court proceeding is brought to the respondent's attention, the judge may give you an order to that effect. The order will usually say something to the effect of:

service upon the Respondent may be effected by delivering a copy of the Notice of Family Claim with any adult resident at Apartment 123 at 456 Main Street in Anytown, British Columbia


service upon the Respondent may be effected by delivering a copy of the Notice of Family Claim to his employer, John Doe, of John Doe's Autobody, whose place of business is at Unit 123 at 456 Main Street in Anytown, British Columbia

This means of service is usually reserved for respondents who are, or appear to be, avoiding service.

Other means of service[edit]

The court really does have a wide latitude when it comes to making orders for substituted service. Among other things, the court can order that the respondent be served by:

  • posting a copy of the documents to the door of their home or office,
  • posting a copy of the documents in the local post office,
  • mailing it to the respondent by registered mail,
  • emailing or sending the materials by some other internet-powered means, if you have an email or other online account that you know the respondent is using.

The particular method the court considers appropriate will always depend on the circumstances and what is reasonable in those circumstances.

The effect of substituted service[edit]

The goal of serving someone substitutionally is to try to alert that person to the fact of the court proceeding and tell them how to get more information about the proceeding.

The effect of an order for substituted service is that a person will be deemed to have been served once all the terms of the order for substituted service are met.

Whether the respondent is actually alerted to the proceeding is another story. The point here is that the court will consider the respondent to have been properly served. This will allow you to go on with your court proceeding in the normal manner once you've met the terms of your substituted service order, whether the respondent has found out about your claim or not.

The key point to understand about substituted service is that the countdown to take further action in your court case, like applying for a default judgment or requesting temporary relief, only begins once you have fully complied with the substituted service order's conditions. In other words, it isn't until the terms of the order are done that you can start counting the time until your next application to court.

For example, say the order allows you to serve someone by posting a copy of your pleadings in the court registry for 45 days. It isn't until the forty-sixth day that you can start counting time. Since the respondent has 30 days to file a Response to Family Claim, you will have to wait 76 days (46 plus 30) from the date you got the order and the order was posted before you can ask for a default judgment or make any other application to the court.

More information[edit]

The steps listed above focus on BC Supreme Court. You can find more information about both Supreme Court and Provincial Court procedure for serving documents by substitute service on Legal Aid BC’s Family Law website’s information page: Arrange for Alternative (Substitutional) Service.

This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Jane DePaoli, September 11, 2023.

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