What Is Default Judgment?

A default judgment is a binding judgment issued by a court in favor of the plaintiff when the defendant fails to respond to a court summons or fails to appear in court. 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 judgement 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 judgement may be vacated.
  • Default judgement criteria and rulings may work differently in different jurisdictions.

How Default Judgment Works

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.

Default Judgments in the U.S., England, and Wales

United States

How default judgments are handled depends upon the state in which the civil action was filed. State courts, United States Federal Courts, tribal courts and many administrative agencies have their own laws and local procedural rules relating to the granting and setting aside of a default judgment. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Rules 55 and 60) are the basis for many procedures in default.

Federal Rule 37(b)(iii) states that a balky plaintiff can be found in default and have his case dismissed if the plaintiff repeatedly fails to comply with things like court orders and discovery requests. Typically, the plaintiff must show that the service of process was effected on the defendant. This is usually achieved by the filing of an affidavit of service (also known as a proof of service), which provides sufficient information to allow the court to confirm that valid service has occurred. Typically, the affidavit states, under oath or penalty of perjury, that service was effected on a named defendant, briefly describes how it was effected, names the person who made service, and gives the place and date service was effected.

England & 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 addition 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.