Default Judgment: What it is, How it Works

What Is Default Judgment?

A default judgment occurs when the defendant in a legal case fails to respond to a court summons or does not appear in court. If this occurs, a court may rule in favor of the plaintiff by default.

If damages were included in the complaint, the default judgment will take those into consideration unless proof of those damages is required.

Key Takeaways

  • A default judgment is a ruling by a judge in favor of a plaintiff in the event that the defendant fails to show up in court.
  • If the defendant can show that the court appearance was missed for valid reasons, the default judgment may be vacated.
  • Default judgment criteria and rulings may work differently in different jurisdictions.

Understanding Default Judgment

While a defendant faced with a default judgment can seek to have the judgment vacated by demonstrating a valid excuse, not appearing in court, or ignoring a summons is generally considered to be a bad idea.

In the U.S.

Default judgments in the U.S. are handled somewhat differently on a state-by-state basis, and so will depend on where the civil action was filed. Individual courts and agencies at various levels may also have their own by-laws and procedures for dealing with a potential default judgment.

Federal Rule 37(b)(2)(v) states a person who fails to appear as required in court can be found in default. Plaintiffs have to sign an affidavit, under oath and penalty of perjury, that the defendant was properly served and still failed to show up (proof of service), which lets the court confirm that the defendant has skipped an appearance.

In England and Wales

In much of the U.K., a lawsuit is initiated by submitting a claim form to the court that spells out the monetary damages and other compensation sought. If a specific monetary amount cannot easily be computed, the damages are "to be assessed" by the court after the fact. In the event a claimant does not want to recover monetary damages, it will also be made clear on this form.

The claim form is combined with other relevant documents to the case in a packet known as the Particulars of Claim or Response Pack, which is subsequently served to the defendant in the case. The defendant then has exactly two weeks from being served to respond. If they do not, the plaintiff can ask for Judgment in Default, by requesting the court to enter a request for judgment, which is the typical route for routine cases. For more complex issues, the plaintiff would apply for a formal application to the procedural judge.

In the case that the defendant has responded to the court within the two-week period, they are granted an additional four weeks time to prepare their defense. If the defendant fails to appear at the end of that second period, a default judgment can be entered as well.

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  1. Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute. "Rule 37. Failure to Make Disclosures or to Cooperate in Discovery; Sanctions." Accessed May 26, 2021.

  2. Thomson Reuters Practical Law. "Particulars of claim." Accessed May 26, 2021.

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