Notes on Unnoticed Notices

New York Times legal columnist Adam Liptak notes the inanity of legal "notices" that notify no one:

"The publication requirement always struck me as a pointless waste of money," said Deborah L. Rhode, a law professor at Stanford who in divorce cases has represented poor women forced to buy ads to notify their missing husbands that they had been sued.

"It was particularly ludicrous for our clients, who were below the poverty threshold and had partners who would never be looking at the designated publication," Professor Rhode said. "It was a form of what we used to refer to as ‘sewer service.' " (The term refers to the fraudulent practice of claiming to have served legal papers on someone while actually tossing them in the sewer or trash.)

There are only two solutions, she said: "Either make a meaningful attempt to find people where fundamental rights are at stake, or dispense with what is truly form over substance."

The main opponents of this proposal (and of transferring the notices to cyberspace so they can go unread there) are newspapers that want to keep the revenue from selling ads to people who are legally required to buy them.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    Presumably, if the defendents have something the plaintiffs wish to seize, the defendent is somewhere nearby. However, I recognize that defendents in civil suits often go to great lengths to avoid service.*

    I have no objection to such a change provided: 1) That, at any time, the defendent can demand a full trial at which he is present - that is, the original verdict will be suspended or set aside if the decision went against him/her in absentia; or 2) That the plaintiff can show that all reasonable attempts were make to locate the defendent for service. [I've done skip tracing. It's not that hard to find most people.]

    *Before anyone snarks: I know criminal defendents frequently make themselves scarce, but those seeking them have a lot more resources to draw on than civil plaintiffs.

  • mith||

    Just ran into this. My (new) wife has to legally change her name, which requires running an ad for 4 weeks in the local paper. Even if there were a trail of people that she had defrauded looking for her, no one is going to notice the ad in this paper. It's just a racket.

  • ||

    Funny, whenever the local school board has an unpleasant legal notice, they use a newspaper with a "modest" circulation. BUT, when they are looking to get the best deal for a project, they spare no expense and advertise in the regional newspaper with almost total circulation.

  • ||

    I think the main reason for notice by publication is so that at some point, the court can say "look, they tried, and you weren't there" but by putting it in a newspaper, which when the rules of civil procedure were put into place, the notice is in the most widely available medium that the missing party might see...

  • ||

    I have ignored, with impunity, these public notice requirements for my businesses for 30 years. I wonder why anyone pays attention to this type of public notice requirement.

    I suppose there is some belief in an omniscient government where there are acres of cubicles with bureaucrats scouring through periodicals in search of DBA notices uncorrelated with tax ID numbers.

  • ||

    There are some "news"papers whose sole purpose is to publish notices. I remember having to publish a notice when I started a business. It was only $15, but still totally ridiculous. Yet within two weeks I was getting junk mail trying to sell me services for my new business. So people DO read it!

  • BakedPenguin||

    Brandybuck - the government agency where you registered your business may have sold your information. That's what happened to me when I had to get a business license. A few other businesses sued the local government a short while after that happened to me.

  • M||

    This is a public notice envisioning with alarm an alternative outcome to the "Ron Paul in Philly" entry at The Wine Commonsewer's blog.

  • M||

    I'll make it easy for ya.

  • ||

    It isn't a scam, so much as an anachronism.

    They should require evidence of having googled the absent party's address.

  • ||

    "...dispense with what is truly form over substance."

    Do you honestly expect that to ever happen?

  • ||

    One of the sideline benefits of this practice is providing new lawyers with entertaining war stories. When I was a new lawyer, we would get together and see who had published notice in the most obscure newspaper. I won several times with publishing in Texas Mohair Weekly.

    That by no means justifies the practice for any other reason.

  • ||

    Legal notices for public hearings involving the planning/zoning board or city council get read.

  • Guy Montag||

    There are some "news"papers whose sole purpose is to publish notices. I remember having to publish a notice when I started a business. It was only $15, but still totally ridiculous. Yet within two weeks I was getting junk mail trying to sell me services for my new business. So people DO read it!

    I was told in a Business Law class that there was one of those in Knoxville too. It was pretty much just a legal posting paper that took subscriptions and you could find it at one book/news store. Forgot if they had one of those incridbly expensive subscription fees, or if they had subscribers at all. Nothing but legal notices from front to back, including the ones like you had to post.

    Like the author, I always thought this was a stupid rule anyway. I understand the intent, but somehow the intent has been allowed to tank into "most minimal effort for show".

  • Sulla||

    There are only two solutions, she said: "Either make a meaningful attempt to find people where fundamental rights are at stake, or dispense with what is truly form over substance."

    I am not a litigator and I'm not terribly familiar with rules for service, but don't the rules generally require you to make a meaningful attempt to find people? I'm not familar with California divorce law, but if you can effect service by publication without even making a good faith attempt to find your spouse that's pretty unfair. On the other hand, in the states that I'm familiar with, a court can grant a divorce even if they don't have personal jurisdiction over the other spouse, but in that case, they can't determine property rights or alimony.

  • ||

    Just another reason why we all need RFIDs implanted in our skulls.

  • ||

    My firm has a service that compiles all legal notices for certain industries. Every week I get a booklet of all the legal notices within certain jurisdictions. It's incredibly helpful.

    Of course, I don't chase ambulances, break up marriages, swing real estate deals or sue Korean dry cleaners.

  • ||

    One of the sideline benefits of this practice is providing new lawyers with entertaining war stories. When I was a new lawyer, we would get together and see who had published notice in the most obscure newspaper. I won several times with publishing in Texas Mohair Weekly.

    Oh my god, that's hilarious! Wonder what the circulation on that one is like.

    These rules are quite old, and I suspect they did serve a more useful purpose in the 19th Century, when people didn't move around as much and there weren't as many obscure publications that would run classified ads.

  • ||

    Lamar,

    Did you mean Korean dry cleaners or Chinese laundries?

  • Skoal||

    Legal notices for public hearings involving the planning/zoning board or city council get read.

    By dorks and losers.

  • ||

    More of an anachronism held onto by historical inertia and the fact that although an individual may be annoyed by the requirement, chances are his downside is far less than the upside of the newspapers, who get to make a pretty penny off such notices.

    Didn't the banns used to have to be posted for three weeks in succession before people could get married?

  • TTT||

    The notices do get read! One year, a property tax bill on a house I was renting out due to moving and changing addresses. A former neighbor called me to tell me that the house would be on the auction block within 30 days if the tax bill wasn't paid. Due to the requirement and a noisy neighbor, I avoided losing the house.

  • RockNTheFreeWorld||

    Georgia has some horrible laws on this. I am in the middle of a step-parent adoption case. The first time we filed, the other residents of the biological fathers house told the sheriff he didn't live there. Our lawyer published in the wrong paper in that county and it almost got thrown out by the judge for non-service. Now, the guy is being hidden by his family (they are afraid we are trying to get the $20,000+ back child support) and the only way we can proceed is through publishing at his last known residences "paper of record". So in some respects it is a godsend to have it, and in some respects it is a pain.

  • David Hardy||

    I've read Arizona newspapers from the 1880s, and could see how back then they would have been noticed. The papers were short, long on local chat (down to who had arrived in town, who was at what hotel), and had quite few classified ads.

    As far as the banns of marriage go, I remember that the "publishing" consisted of the priest reading the announcement before his sermon, and often a mention in the parish bulletin. They came in in the 16th century as a means of preventing polygamy! Everyone was put on notice for three weeks of an upcoming wedding.

  • sbw||

    Don't forget that the newspaper serves as a valuable permanent historical record. One does not only write for today.

    On a different note, do not frivolously disregard the legal obligation to print a public notice. You may find that contracts let in the absence of legally required notices are not legal.

    Finally, consider the importance of putting some form of comprehensible notice where people go to read the news.

    Yes, one could look at it as the dole, but people easily dismiss what they do not fully understand.

  • ||

    "I've read Arizona newspapers from the 1880s...."

    Dude! You are, like, totally old!

  • ||

    I'm sorry, but the only true way of being notified of legal notices is on the Internet...If I lived part of the year in Chicago and the other part in Fort Myers, how else could I be notified of legal notices that may affect me. The Internet has a much broader reach than newspapers and the only reason legal notices are still in newspapers is because lawmakers are scared to go against the power of ink. This Enotices company has a good plan after reading their site. They suggest doing a subscription service to be notified any time a legal notice may affect you.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement