What is a Federal Summons?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 16 March 2020
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A federal summons is a legal document which summons someone to an appearance in a federal court. Someone who receives a federal summons is legally required to respond, and there are several ways in which someone can respond to the summons. It is advisable to contact a lawyer if served with a federal summons to discuss options and plan a response. When seeking out a lawyer to assist with a federal summons, it can be helpful to research area lawyers to find one who specializes in cases of the type covered by the summons.

The classic reason to issue a federal summons is to alert someone to the fact that proceedings have began against him or her in a federal court. No matter what the cause, the summons must list the location of the court and the date and time at which attendance is expected. The document should also reveal the name of the opposing attorney, and provide some information about how to respond.


One way to respond to a federal summons is to show up in court at the appointed time. Legal representation should be brought along if someone is a defendant in a case, while someone who is being summoned to act as a witness may not need a lawyer, depending on the type of testimony involved. It is important to comply with the dress code of the court and to observe court protocol to avoid being charged with contempt of court or being asked to change or modify behavior for the courtroom environment.

Another option is to respond in writing. A lawyer can help determine whether or not a written response is needed, and can help draft the document. For example, someone asked as a witness might write back and ask if it's possible to take a deposition outside of court and use that as evidence in the case if showing up in court would be a hardship. Likewise, someone with a summons to a federal jury can ask that jury duty be waived or postponed due to hardship. If a summons is issued in error, as does sometimes happen, the recipient of the summons can contact the court to clarify the matter.

If someone is a defendant, failure to respond to a federal summons can mean that the court will rule against the defendant in absentia. For people such as witnesses and jurors, a bench warrant may be issued by the judge, with the judge mandating that the person be brought before the bench to answer the summons. For this reason, ignoring a federal summons is not advised!


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