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The paper that tells a defendant that he or she is being sued and asserts the power of the court to hear and determine the case. A form of legal process that commands the defendant to appear before the court on a specific day and to answer the complaint made by the plaintiff.

The summons is the document that officially starts a lawsuit. It must be in a form prescribed by the law governing procedure in the court involved, and it must be properly served on, or delivered to, the defendant. If the prescribed formalities are not observed, the court lacks authority to hear the dispute.

In the federal district courts, the summons is prepared by the attorney for the plaintiff and given to the clerk of the court where the case will be heard. When the plaintiff's complaint, setting out his claim, is filed with the court, the clerk signs the summons and gives it and a copy of the complaint to a U.S. marshal or to someone else appointed to serve the papers. Once the summons and complaint are served on the defendant, she must respond to them within twenty days or whatever other time the court allows.

Some states follow this same procedure, but other states allow service of the summons and complaint by delivery directly to the defendant. In those states, the lawsuit is considered begun as soon as the defendant receives the papers, even though nothing has yet been filed with a court. Actions commenced in this way are sometimes called "hip pocket" suits.


Service of Process.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


n. a document issued by the court at the time a lawsuit is filed, stating the name of both plaintiff and defendant, the title and file number of the case, the court and its address, the name and address of the plaintiff's attorney, and instructions as to the need to file a response to the complaint within a certain time (such as 30 days after service), usually with a form on the back on which information of service of summons and complaint is to be filled out and signed by the process server. A copy of the summons must be served on each defendant at the same time as the complaint to start the time running for the defendant to answer. Certain writs and orders to show cause are served instead of a summons since they contain the same information along with special orders of the court. After service to the defendants, the original summons, along with the "return of service" proving the summons and complaint were served, is filed with the court to show that each defendant was served. A summons differs from a subpena, which is an order to witnesses to appear. (See: service, service of process, complaint, order to show cause, writ)

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.


an official order requiring a person to attend court, either to answer a charge or to give evidence, or the writ making such an order.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

SUMMONS, practice. The name of a writ commanding the sheriff, or other authorized officer, to notify a party to appear in court to answer a complaint made against him and in the said writ specified, on a day therein mentioned. 21 Vin. Ab. 42 2 Sell. Pr. 356; 3 Bl. Com. 279.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
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