What Is a Default Order?

C. Mitchell

A mandate issued by a civil court that terminates a lawsuit by siding automatically with one party is called a default order. It is sometimes also called a default judgment. These orders or judgments are most commonly issued when one party fails to appear in court or refuses to answer a properly filed complaint. A default order does not usually include any legal reasoning. Rather, it simply gives the party that appeared everything requested, within reason, plus court fees in most places.

A mandate issued by a civil court that terminates a lawsuit by siding automatically with one party is called a default order.
A mandate issued by a civil court that terminates a lawsuit by siding automatically with one party is called a default order.

Default orders are commonplace in most civil law systems around the world. Without them, parties to lawsuits would be able to avoid conflict simply by ignoring it. Under a default system, parties who do not respond or appear are penalized in two respects: first, they lose their chance to defend themselves, and second, they foreclose the option of having the court decide on an equitable award or settlement. When the court issues a default order, it automatically grants the award outlined in the appearing party’s brief.

The order itself is usually no more than a page in length. It will contain the parties’ names, as well as the central matter to be decided. The presiding judge will never address the merits of the case. All he or she will say was that, owing to one party’s default, the other’s petition is granted in full. Court fees and administrative costs are usually added on, as well.

Failing to appear for a scheduled court date is the easiest way to trigger a default order. Almost any breach of court instructions can lead to that end, though. Refusing to permit discovery, withholding evidence, or refusing to heed subpoenas can cause a judge to enter a default order against a party.

Default orders can be appealed in nearly every jurisdiction, at least at first. Most of the time, the initial order is what is known as an interlocutory default order. This means that the order is not final. Usually a certain amount of time must pass from the date the order is issued before the court will begin pursuing a remedy.

During this time, parties who have received default orders usually have a chance to show either that the default should not have been entered, or that they had good reason for triggering the order and should be given a second chance. Not all excuses are equal. In order for a court to reconsider, the defaulting party must usually have a legally cognizable explanation.

Forgetting a court date, disagreeing with a compliant, or misunderstanding a court’s instructions are not usually acceptable excuses for default. Improper instructions can warrant an appeal, however, as can some sort of improper service of process. If a legal error or procedural misstep caused the default, must judges will, at their discretion, reopen the case, and either reverse or change the default order.

A reversed order does not mean that the case has been dismissed. It simply gives parties another chance to start from the beginning and have the dispute heard, arguments and all, by the court. Penalties may still attach, however, particularly where court fees and costs are concerned. Scheduling trials is expensive, and a defaulting party may sometimes be ordered to pay costs associated with re-calendaring the trial.

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Discussion Comments


I want to learn the basics now, so when I get in college I'll know all the basics.


What is a referring judge vs a presiding judge when both show up on the same case docket?

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