What is a Summons to Appear?

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  • Written By: Lainie Petersen
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 25 January 2020
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A summons to appear is a legal document requesting that an individual appear in court. Both civil summons and criminal summons might be issued depending on the nature of the legal issue. The purpose of a summons to appear in civil cases is to provide official notification to a defendant that there is a lawsuit or legal proceeding against him. A criminal summons, on the other hand, may be issued when a person is a suspect in a crime and is ordered to appear before a judge as part of the investigation. In the United States, laws govern the ways in which defendants must be served with a summons in court to protect the defendant's right to due process.


When one party files a civil action against another, such as a lawsuit, eviction, or divorce, she must have a summons to appear served to the defendant. In the United States, the summons must conform to state laws regarding the composition of a court summons. Some states have plain language rules that require court summons to be drafted in layman's language. The summons must usually state the name of the plaintiff as well as the name of the defendant and the nature of the case. If the plaintiff is requesting a money judgment, the summons must also state the amount of money for which the defendant is being sued. The sum should also explain to the defendant what the defendant needs to do in order to respond to the summons, such as showing up in court for a scheduled hearing.

In some criminal cases, a defendant may be served with a criminal summons to appear in court as an alternative to arrest by the police. Landlords or homeowners who fail to appropriately maintain their homes may receive a criminal summons to court. Traffic tickets that order a driver to appear in court are another type of criminal summons. If an individual ignores a criminal summons to appear, he may be charged with an additional crime, such as failure to appear, which may result in a judge issuing a warrant for his arrest.

The recipient of civil summons may not be legally obligated to actually appear in court, but if he fails to do so he risks having a default judgment issued against him. A plaintiff automatically wins in a default judgment and may be able to take specific action against the defendant, such as wage garnishment or asset seizure, without any further court proceedings. Defendants who receive a civil summons should appear in court to protect their rights and, if possible, hire a lawyer to advise them in their case.


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Post 1

I work for a newspaper and reporters occasionally get a summons to appear. Sometimes they even come in the mail, which is a little strange.

I can usually spot a server because they always look a little furtive when they come into the office, and they won't say what they need, or why they have come in -- just that they need to see a particular person. I told one of them one time that we get a little nervous in the newsroom when people come in and won't tell us what they need or why they have come in. We get a little suspicious and start wondering if we should call the cops. Lots of meanness in the world. The woman looked really startled when I told her that, like it had never occurred to her -- in this day and age!

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