In Personam Jurisdiction


Personal jurisdiction is the court’s authority to determine personal rights and liabilities of the parties before it.  Under personal jurisdiction the court has the power to decide matters of a particular defendant (in personam jurisdiction) or an item of property (in rem jurisdiction).  If a court does not have personal jurisdiction over a defendant or property, then the court cannot bind the defendant to an obligation or adjudicate any rights over the property.  Personal jurisdiction is therefore the court’s authority to determine personal rights and liabilities of the parties before it.

Personal jurisdiction is different from subject-matter jurisdiction or territorial jurisdiction.  Subject matter jurisdiction gives the court the power to render a judgment concerning a certain subject matter and territorial jurisdiction is the power of a court to render a judgment concerning events that occurred within a territory.  The difference between personal jurisdiction and subject matter jurisdiction is that unlike subject-matter jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction may be waived, even unintentionally, by a defendant.  Personal jurisdiction, territorial jurisdiction, subject-matter jurisdiction, and proper notice to the defendant are the most fundamental constitutional prerequisites for a valid judgment.

The question of personal jurisdiction may arise in the State courts as well as in the Federal courts.  The federalist pattern of judiciary in US has its complicating effects on civil procedure which definitely pose some conflict in jurisdiction matters.  There are therefore various factors/tests adopted by State courts from time to time while deciding upon personal jurisdiction issues.  These are:

  1. Territoriality Test- The strict view of territoriality states that personal jurisdiction  can be exercised only if –
  • The defendant or property in dispute is located in the state where the suit is filed.
  • The defendant is served with process in the state or property is seized by the state authorities.
  1. Contacts Test- The contact test places more focus on “fairness of a particular state court’s exercise of jurisdiction over the defendant in the light of the defendant’s connection with the state”.
  2. General/Specific Jurisdiction- This test follows the principle that a person can be sued on any claim, even on claims unrelated to the defendant’s contact with the state.
  3. “Stream of Commerce” Idea- In Product Liability Cases, personal jurisdiction can be asserted if a corporation delivers its products into the stream of commerce with the expectation that it will be purchased by consumers in the forum state.  In such cases, the defendant’s actions must be “voluntary and purposefully directed” towards the forum state.
  4. Overall Reasonableness Factor- In cases of personal jurisdiction, apart from requisite contact, “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice” should also be considered along with additional factors like-
  • Interest of the forum state in the case.
  • Actual burden of the defendant defending the forum.
  • Plaintiff’s interest in getting relief
  •    Systemic interest in “efficient resolution of controversies and fundamental substantive social policies”

On the question of personal jurisdiction in Federal Courts, Section 4(k) (1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states that the power of the federal courts and the state courts are coextensive.  However the Supreme Court and the Congress have taken a more limited view and have drawn a distinction between Diversity cases and Federal Question cases.