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Personal Jurisdiction

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This page contains information about what it means for a court to have “jurisdiction over the person,” especially someone who lives in another state. There are many reasons why you may be living in a different state than someone who is abusing you. You may have fled to escape abuse, or you may have moved to a new state for another reason. The fact that the abuser lives in another state may create a problem when you are trying to get a restraining order against him or her or if you are trying to get other remedies from the court.

What does jurisdiction over the person mean? Because it is important?

Jurisdiction over the person means that the judge has the power or authority to make decisions that affect a specific person. In order for a judge to make decisions in a court case, the court must have “individual jurisdiction” over all parts of the case. The judge can dismiss your case if the court does not have jurisdiction over the person of the other party.

How does the court obtain personal jurisdiction over the parties in a lawsuit?

​Generally, in civil cases, the person filing the court case (the plaintiff or petitioner) is giving the court jurisdiction over himself/herself by simply showing up. When you file a court case, you are asking for a remedy from the court, you are telling the court that there is a problem that you need the judge to resolve, and you are bound by whatever decision is made. This means that you agree that the court has the power or authority to make a decision that affects you (jurisdiction over you).

It is a little more complicated when looking at the person who is being sued (the petitioner or respondent). Our most important law (the US Constitution) seeks to ensure that the defendant in a case has an opportunity to defend themselves if a lawsuit is filed against them. To ensure that you can defend yourself, the plaintiff or the court system must notify the respondent of the lawsuit or complaint against you. Each state has its own laws in terms of what is necessary to legally notify someone of an action against them and whether that will be done by the plaintiff or the court. If the defendant resides in the state where the court case is filed, once the defendant has been legally served, the court obtains jurisdiction over the defendant and can then begin the legal process. It is more complicated if the defendant lives in a different state than where the lawsuit was filed.

If the abuser lives out of state, when will the court have jurisdiction over him?

For most court cases, most states have what is known as an “extraterritorial jurisdiction law.” This is a law that explains when a court can have jurisdiction over people who do not reside in that state. Extraterritorial jurisdiction law sets forth certain conditions, or “minimum contacts,” that must be met in order for the court to obtain personal jurisdiction over the respondent. Although this can vary from state to state, in general, the most common ways to obtain jurisdiction over the person of the defendant are:

  • the reason for the lawsuit occurred in the state where the case is being filed;
  • the defendant was personally served with the court papers in that state; either
  • the defendant has substantial connections to the state (often called “minimal contacts”).

If the reason for the lawsuit occurred in the state, would a court in this state have jurisdiction over the person?

The “cause of action” basically means the reason you are suing someone. If the reason for the lawsuit (or the cause of action) occurred in the state in which you are trying to obtain jurisdiction over the person of the other party, this is one way that the court can have jurisdiction over the person. For example, let’s say you live in Virginia and your partner lives in Florida. If your partner attacked you in Virginia while you were visiting him/her, then Virginia would have jurisdiction over you and your out-of-state partner to hear a court case related to that attack (“assault”).

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