Home Litigation Court Summons: What Does Summon Mean And What To Do?

Court Summons: What Does Summon Mean And What To Do?

Wondering how does the court summons work?

What does summon mean and what should you do when you receive a summons?

What is a summons vs subpoena or summons vs warrant?

In this article, we tell you all there is to know about a court summons.

We will provide you with the summons meaning, court summons, types of summons, serving a summons and more.

Are you ready?

Let’s get started…

Summons meaning and definition

Summons, means what exactly?

To understand the summon meaning or what is the meaning of summoned, let’s look to understand what summon means. 

In essence, a summon is a notice of a lawsuit or a notice of a motion filed by one party against another.

With a summon, you notify someone you are claiming something from them in court and they are asked to come and defend themselves.

The summons definition according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “a call by authority to appear at a place named or to attend to a duty” or “a warning or citation to appear in court”.

As the definition suggests, the summon is a call by an authority, or a court, you to appear in court.

Court summons 

Now that we know what summon means, let’s define summon from the court.

What is a court summons

A court summons is a notification sent to you by a party to a lawsuit or the court itself calling you to appear in court on a specific date and at a specific time.

A court summons is the signal that a complaint or a petition has been filed against you in court.

It can be the commencement of a civil lawsuit or a criminal lawsuit.

In a civil lawsuit, the court summons will be sent to you by the plaintiff who is a person or entity claiming something from you like damages or a sum of money.

In a criminal summons, the summons will be sent to you in the name of the state.

Summons to appear in court

The summons must give you a date and time to appear in court to respond to the allegations and complaint filed against you.

If you fail to show up after receiving a summons to appear in court, the plaintiff can proceed against you by default.

Answering a summons is important.

On the date specified in the summons, you must either present yourself in person or have a lawyer represent you to answer to the summons and complaint.

In some cases, you may need more time to prepare yourself for various reasons but that does not exempt you from presenting yourself to ask for more time.

You can even contact the plaintiff before the scheduled court appearance date to inform them that you will need more time.

In most cases, the plaintiff will allow you more time.

If the plaintiff refuses to give you more time, you must make sure you present yourself to court and ask the judge to give you additional time to prepare yourself.

What does the court summons contain

The court summons is a written document identifying the court before which a lawsuit has been filed, the name of the parties along with a date and time when the petition will be heard.

The laws of each jurisdiction will define the content of the summons and the information it must contain.

Typically, the summons will contain a notice to the defendant that if it does not appear in court on the date required, the court may proceed against the defendant by default and render a default judgment.

Summons and complaint 

We’ve looked at what is a summons and now you wonder what is a summons and complaint?

A court summons is sometimes referred to as a “summons and complaint” as the petition contains both the allegations made against you (the complaint) and a notification for you to appear in court (summons).

An action is instituted when a complaint is filed in the record of the court.

However, for the action to proceed against the defendant, the plaintiff must inform the defendant that it has filed a civil complaint.

A civil complaint and summons achieves both objectives.

You outline the nature of your complaint and at the same time you notify the defendant to appear to the court to respond to the allegations you’ve made against him.

Hence, summons and complaint.

When is a summons issued 

What does summons issued mean?

When is a summons issued?

When we say a summons issued, it means that a plaintiff in a civil proceeding has filed a complaint and has issued a summons against the defendant to appear in court.

A summons is issued to the defendant to start legal proceedings.

In other words, if you are looking to file a civil lawsuit against a person, you will need to serve them a copy of your complaint or petition along with a summons to appear in court.

In criminal lawsuits, the summons will be issued by the crown prosecutor representing the state.

When we say summons issued in a criminal context, it means that the state has commenced a criminal action against the defendant.

When a criminal summons is issued, criminal-type charges are brought against you by the state with respect to a crime or a violation prosecuted under a criminal proceeding.

Summons vs subpoena 

Did you ever wonder what is the difference between a court summons vs subpoena?

What is a summons vs subpoena?

A legal summons is a notice given to the defendant about a complaint inviting the defendant to appear in court.

A subpoena on the other hand is a court order demanding that the recipient appear in court to testify or produce documents.

Let’s look at the main differences between a summons and a subpoena? 

Implication in the lawsuit

The summons is generally issued to a party to the lawsuit whereas the subpoena is generally issued to a third-party requiring them to testify in the context of a lawsuit.

When you send someone a summons notifying them of a lawsuit, you are letting them know that you are asking the court for something against that person.

When you send a subpoena to someone, the person receiving a subpoena will not be the one against whom a judgment will be issued but is required to show up and testify or bring documents.

Obligation to appear in court

A court summons informs you that you are strongly recommended to appear in court, but you don’t have a legal obligation to do so.

If you fail to show up, the plaintiff can get a judgment against you by default.

If you don’t care, then you can choose not to show up to court.

Most people care!

In the end, with a summons notifying you of the commencement of a legal proceeding, even though it is highly recommended you appear to court, there is nothing forcing you to do so.

With a subpoena, on the other hand, you are ordered to present yourself in court.

If you fail to present yourself, you can be in contempt of court.

The mere fact that you are not part of the lawsuit does not mean that you should ignore the subpoena.

If you fail to respect the terms of the subpoena, you can expose yourself to important fines and even imprisonment. 

So make sure you respect the order of the subpoena.

Your obligation under the subpoena is to show up and testify whereas your obligation under a summons is to answer allegations against you although you can choose not to answer them.

What’s contained in a summons

The summons must contain information to properly notify the defendant of a lawsuit.

In most jurisdictions, the summons will include the following:

  1. Identification of the court issuing the summons
  2. The court file number or docket number
  3. The name of the parties involved in the lawsuit
  4. The name of the party issuing the summons
  5. The name of the party receiving the summons 
  6. A description of the case
  7. Outline of what is the defendant asked to do
  8. Date by which the defendant must appear in court
  9. Consequences of not responding to a summons

Often, the text of the summons is legally defined through the rules of the court issuing the summons.

Make sure you follow the format and standards defined by the relevant court.

Types of summons

Summons can be sent to you in different types of cases: 

  1. Civil summons
  2. Criminal summons
  3. Citation or notice to appear
  4. Jury duty summons

No matter the nature of the lawsuit, if you are served with a summons, it’s because you are required to present yourself to the court regarding a case.

Civil summons

What is the meaning of summon in a civil context?

A civil summons for court is a notice given in the context of a civil lawsuit involving private parties.

The summons is issued by the plaintiff directly or the plaintiff’s attorney and will be served to the defendant.

The civil summons will be generally accompanied by a civil complaint.

The purpose of giving a summons notice to the defendant is to make sure the defendant is aware that a lawsuit, a complaint or a petition has been filed against it, have the time to find a lawyer and prepare a defense.

Criminal summons

A criminal summons is a type of summons issued by the prosecutor or the district attorney on behalf of the state.

A criminal summons will be issued when a victim of a crime complains to the police against the person having committed the alleged crime.

When the police receives a complaint, they’ll investigate it and hand over the evidence to the prosecutor, if there is merit to pursue a perpetrator of the alleged crime, the prosecutor will issue a criminal summons.

Citation or notice to appear

A citation or notice to appear is a type of summons issued and served by the police or law enforcement officer at the scene of an accident, crime or traffic violation.

Some refer to this as traffic summons or police summons. 

The citation informs the defendant that he or she must appear before a judge to explain his actions.

The police gives a written citation to the defendant if the police intends to bring charges against the person in question.

Generally, the defendant will promise to appear in court on the required date.

Jury summons

Aside from the civil and criminal types of summons, there is another type of summons: jury summons.

What is a jury summons?

The jury summons or a jury duty summons is a notice sent by mail to require you to participate in a lawsuit as a potential member of the jury.

When you receive a summons for jury service, you are asked to present yourself at the courthouse at a specific time and place.

When you arrive at the courthouse, you may go through a jury qualification process to ensure that you can act as a jury in a specific case.

Once you are qualified to be a possible jury member, the next step will be the jury selection process.

That’s when the prosecutor and the defense lawyer will select members of the jury they believe can be beneficial for their case.

What is the difference between summons and warrant 

When speaking of a warrant, we are generally speaking about an arrest warrant.

An arrest warrant is common in criminal proceedings to bring defendants that fail to appear or to detail a defendant accused of a severe crime.

In the context of a summons in a civil action, the defendant will generally not be arrested or be brought to court by force. 

If the defendant does not show up, the consequence is the possible issuance of a default judgment against it.

So this section will consider the difference between summons and warrant in the context of a criminal case.

Summons to appear in court

The purpose of summons and warrant is to bring a person charged with a crime to court.

The summons is a written order given to someone notifying the person that they must show up to court on the summons date.

If the police officer believes that you will voluntarily appear to court and you are not a threat to the public, you will be served with a summons to appear to court.

Mandate to arrest the defendant

A warrant on the other hand is when the police gives you a summons to appear in court and arrests you at the same time to bring you in front of a judge.

In essence, with a warrant or arrest warrant, a summons is issued against you to appear in court and the police is mandated to arrest you so you are brought to court at once.

You’ll be held in jail for a short period of time until you appear before a judge.

Summons case and warrant case

A summons case is a legal case where a notification is issued by a civil court for the defendant to appear and respond to the allegations raised against it.

A civil court summons is issued and served on the defendant to ensure the defendant is aware that a case is being tried against it and to ensure a fair trial.

A criminal case can also be handled via written summons without requiring the arrest of the defendant.

A criminal action summons case is generally less severe than a warrant case.

A warrant case is necessarily related to a criminal case where a person is required to be arrested and brought to court.

In the end, the objective of the warrant vs summons is the same.

In both cases, the defendant is required to be brought to court.

The difference lies in whether or not the defendant is requested to come voluntarily or be arrested.

Service of summons

To notify someone that you have filed a lawsuit against them, you must serve them with a summons.

The service of summons is the process by which you will formally inform the defendant or the other party that you are legally pursuing them.

Service of summons can also be referred to as service of process.

How is a court summons delivered?

Who can serve a summons

Anyone over the age of 18 and not a party to the legal action can serve a summons for court.

A summons from the court can also be served through a process server being a professional specialized in delivering legal procedures.

Methods to serve a summon 

There are several methods that can be used to serve a summon.

You can handle the service of summons in the following ways:

  1. Service in person 
  2. Service by mail 
  3. Service by email 
  4. Service by publication 

Personal service of summons 

The best way to ensure a defendant is validly notified of your legal papers is to personally serve your summons.

Typically, a party intending to file a lawsuit against another will serve a copy of the legal procedures using the services of a process server. 

The process server is a professional specialized in delivering legal documents.

Most often, they will hand-deliver the summons to the defendant and issue an affidavit of service proving that the service was done.

You can also personally serve someone through a friend or family member, over the age of 18, who is not directly implicated in the lawsuit.

When the service in person fails or is not possible, then you can consider serving your summons by mail, by email or by publication.

Service of summons by mail

Service by mail is another way you can notify a defendant of a summon.

Different jurisdictions will have different requirements for the validity of the service of summons by mail.

For instance, in some jurisdictions, you must send a copy of your summons by certified mail, restricted delivery and with a return receipt requested.

Restricted delivery is required to ensure that the intended recipient is the only person who signs receipt of the package.

A return receipt is a postcard demonstrating that the intended recipient received the package.

Service of summons by email

The service of summons can be done in some cases by email if you are not able to serve the defendant in person or the defendant does not have a known address.

Serving the court summons by email entails that you send a scanned copy of the summons to the defendant by email.

You may probably need to get the permission of the court before serving by email so ensure you verify the court requirements.

Typically, you will need to demonstrate that the email you are using to serve the summons belongs to the intended recipient, you’ve corresponded with the defendant using that email address and that you’ve tried other means of service and failed.

Service of summons by publication 

The service of a summons by publication is another exceptional type of service where you publish your summons in a general-circulation newspaper.

This type of service may be used when the defendant is nowhere to be found, is unknown or is deliberately hiding.

To serve a summons by publication, you’ll need to verify the applicable rules to ensure you publish the summons for court in the right territory and for a sufficient amount of time.

You may also need to get permission from the court prior to serving by publication.

Does a summons have to be served in person

Ideally, you should serve your summons in person.

With a court summons delivery in person, it’s difficult for the defendant to challenge your service as you have direct proof that the defendant has received your legal papers.

An in-person service leaves very little room for the defendant to claim that he did not get a copy of the legal procedures and was not aware that the plaintiff was suing him.

However, the service of summons and complaint does not necessarily have to be done in person all the time.

If you cannot find the defendant, the defendant is hiding or does not reside in your jurisdiction, you can serve by mail, email or by publication as well.

Generally, these alternatives are possible when the service in person is not possible or feasible.

Proof of service of summons 

The proof of service of a summons is the evidence showing that your summons has been duly served to the defendant or intended recipient.

The proof of service must clearly show that the defendant has received your legal papers.

If you notified your summons to the other party using the services of a process server, the process server will generally provide you with either a report, declaration or affidavit or service proving that the summons has been delivered to the defendant.

A service done by mail can be proved by producing the signed return receipt or certificate of delivery issued by the postal service company you used.

If you served your summons by email, you should request a delivery receipt, a read receipt and an email acknowledgment by the other party that they’ve received the email.

A service via publication will be proven by providing a copy of the general-circulation newspaper you used to publish your notice.

What happens if summons is not served

If you have not been served with the summons, you have no obligation to go to court to respond to the complaint made against you.

When a court is presented with a petition, the first thing it will consider is whether or not the other party has been served with the summons.

If the summons was not served or the plaintiff has no proof of service, the court will not hear the application or petition until the defendant has been duly notified and had time to prepare a defense.

In some cases, a valid service can be done at your home or residence to a person who lives with you.

If the summons was served to someone living at your house and they did not give you the documents, the service by the plaintiff will not be invalid.

In that case, the plaintiff can validly pursue the complaint against you even if you did not know you had to show up in court.

How to respond to a summons

You were served with a summons and now you are a defendant in a civil lawsuit, what to do next?

How to respond to a court summons from court?

What is your deadline to respond

The first thing you should do is to look at the date that you are asked to appear in court.

Make sure you prepare yourself quickly so you can be ready to appear in court on the date required.

If you have things planned on the court appearance date, you should rearrange your schedule so you can go to court.

If you fail to show up, the plaintiff can get a judgment default against you.

Assess the complaint 

Once you’ve considered the date, make sure you read through the whole complaint and summons to ensure you fully understand what is alleged against you.

Is the plaintiff asking for damages or sums of money?

Is the plaintiff looking to get an injunction to force you to do something or not to do something?

Make sure you are clear about what is being asked from you.

Consult a lawyer

You should consider consulting a lawyer.

Unless you are a lawyer yourself or you are well-versed in law, you should consult a lawyer to better understand the next steps and how to prepare your case.

The court will not render a final judgment on the first court appearance, so no need to worry.

However, you need to make sure you start gathering the relevant documents, emails and evidence to help your case.

A lawyer can guide you with respect to the merits of the case and the court procedures.

Prepare a summons response 

Depending on the court rules, you will need to file some sort of a response.

In some cases, you will need to notify the plaintiff that you will contest the petition filed against you or you agree with it.

Perhaps you want to negotiate a settlement with the other party, file a motion to dismiss the case or file a preliminary application challenging the validity of the claim filed against you.

You may even want to immediately consider filing a counter-lawsuit of your own.

Once you’ve defined your strategy, make sure you prepare your response accordingly.

Give the plaintiff copy of your response

Once you have prepared your response, you will need to notify your response to the plaintiff.

If you want to present a motion to dismiss or another form of preliminary application, you’ll need to provide the summons related to your petition to the other party.

File the response with the court

After you’ve served a copy of your response to the plaintiff or your own petition, you’ll need to file your response or counterclaim in the record of the court along with the evidence that you’ve served the other party.

You can contact the courthouse where the lawsuit has been filed to understand how to file your response.


There you have it folks, our complete review of the court summons and the summons meaning.

We’ve answered the question: what is a civil summons and what is a criminal summons?

A summons in law is a notice or summons to the defendant requiring him or her to appear in court failure of which the defendant may be condemned by default. 

In this article, we’ve outlined the important considerations related to you getting a summons to court.

When you get a summons, make sure you do your homework and prepare yourself.

Give the court order summons all the importance it deserves.

You are either being called into a civil action or lawsuit or you are involved in criminal proceedings where you need to ensure you defend yourself.

In either case, be sure to respond to the summons!

We hope you enjoyed this article.

Do you have any feedback to share with us? 

Drop us a comment!

Editorial Staff
Hello Nation! I'm a lawyer by trade and an entrepreneur by spirit. I specialize in law, business, marketing, and technology (and love it!). I'm an expert SEO and content marketer where I deeply enjoy writing content in highly competitive fields. On this blog, I share my experiences, knowledge, and provide you with golden nuggets of useful information. Enjoy!

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