Yesterday two different attorneys asked me about accepting service on behalf of a client for rules to show cause. While I will routinely accept service of pleadings (with my client’s permission, of course) I’ve determined it’s unsafe for an attorney to accept service of a rule to show cause on behalf of a client and no longer do so. I no longer ask other attorneys to accept service of rules either.
My thinking changed after accepting service for a rule to show cause a few years ago. My client was facing contempt for being behind on his child support. Prior to my representing him he had served a year in jail for civil contempt for delinquent child support and he was unwilling to face further jail time. So, a few days before the hearing, he left the state–permanently–and failed to appear for the rule hearing.
Meanwhile I show up at the hearing without my client there. The language of a rule to show cause includes the command “IT IS ORDERED THAT YOU APPEAR BEFORE THE Family Court for _________ County …. and there to be prepared to show cause….” While a summons for a complaint is signed by an attorney, the rule to show cause is an order issued by a judge. Merely failing to show up for a rule to show cause that a party has been served with is a violation of a court order; in fact, unlike the contempt prosecuted in most rules to show cause, it’s considered direct contempt and the party can be sanctioned by the presiding judge immediately and without further hearing.
The situation at that rule hearing was extremely awkward. The court issued a bench warrant for my client’s arrest–since he had failed to appear–yet I was the person who had accepted service on the rule. While my client had provided written authorization–an email–for me to accept service, that email isn’t in the court file. If he’s picked up on the bench warrant years hence, he might easily claim I had no authority to accept service on his behalf and the court won’t know otherwise. Awkward.
I will no longer put myself in a situation in which my client can be held in direct contempt of a court order when it’s my signature, not the client’s, on the acceptance of service. Instead, I uniformly direct my clients to accept service of a rule to show cause. If a client ever refused to accept service–it hasn’t happened yet–I would treat that as a significant warning sign that my client might be a flight risk and I would probably avoid representating him or her on the rule.
Don’t put yourself in a situation in which your client fails to appear for a rule to show cause when it’s your signature of the acceptance of service. Have the client accept service instead.