Legal documents that are not properly served on those who are affected by them are often not worth the paper they are written on. In one guideline decision of interest to anyone involved in the debt recovery field, the High Court analysed the nature of personal service in the context of a bankruptcy case.
Two companies who claimed to be owed £550,000 by a businessman arranged for him to be served with a bankruptcy petition at Heathrow Airport. He claimed that the process server had handed the document not to him but to a companion who was standing near him and that the latter promptly threw it in a bin. A court official nevertheless concluded that personal service had been affected and declared the businessman bankrupt.
In dismissing his challenge to that decision, the Court found that the businessman could have been in no doubt as to the nature of the document, parts of which had been read to him at the scene. The petition had been left ‘with or near’ him and, although he did not touch it, he could have retrieved it from the bin or simply asked his companion to put it in his hands.
He had a sufficient opportunity to take possession of the document to enable him to exercise dominion over it for a period, however brief, and the Court rejected arguments that rejection of his appeal would open the floodgates to a relaxation of the strict rules relating to personal service of bankruptcy petitions.