As we all know, life can be unpredictable, and at some point, you might find yourself in a position of not being able to pay back the money you owe someone. Of course, avoiding the issue and not coming up with a suitable arrangement could result in legal action against you. And this is where you are very likely to encounter a summons, which can be confusing. So, let’s take a closer look at what precisely a summons is and what you should look out for. 

In our legal system, a summons is the first official document in the court process of South Africa. It is usually preceded by a lawyer’s letter known as a letter of demand and delivered by the Sheriff of the Court (note: the Sheriff doesn’t necessarily have to deliver it in person; they can also leave it at your workplace or home, for example). For instance, if you owe someone money and they want to take you to court, you will eventually receive a summons from the court.  

It is also essential to know that the specifics of how, when and where a summons can be issued can differ slightly depending on which court it is coming from, be it the Magistrates or High Court.  

We take a look at the basics of what precisely a summons is, how to make sense of it, and why you should not ignore it.

5 Things You Should Know About Receiving a Court Summons:

1. What exactly does the summons contain?  

Essentially, a summons stipulates all the specifics of the case someone (the Plaintiff) is instituting against you (the Defendant). A section of the summons or an attached document appropriately called “The Particulars of the Claim”, will summarise what the case against you is.   

What’s more, the summons will indicate what court the case will be heard in and what the case number is. Make sure that you are the Defendant mentioned in the summons.   

If you have more questions about the summons, you can approach the Sheriff of the Court to clarify things or contact the Plaintiff’s lawyers for more information (their details will be in the summons).  

2. How to go about defending yourself. 

Of course, it is well within your legal rights to defend yourself in court. The court rules stipulate that you have 10 business days from the date you received the summons, to notify the Plaintiff that you plan to defend the case against you. The summons that you received should contain a section called Notice of Intention to Defend.  

Make two copies of this Notice and take one copy to the court mentioned in the summons to get it stamped and filed, and take the other to the Plaintiff’s attorneys. It’s advisable to speak to a lawyer for advice and assistance. 

3. Speak to a lawyer. Get legal assistance. 

After notifying the Plaintiff that you will defend yourself, you will have to issue a plea and answer all the questions regarding the allegations made against you in the summons (you have to do this 20 days after issuing your Notice to Defend). And this is where things can get a bit tricky, and you should get a lawyer to assist you further. The court rules dictate what a plea should contain and look like, and only a lawyer will likely be familiar with these rules.  A lawyer can help you draft a valid request and ensure that it isn’t dismissed. If you do not follow the exact rules and your plea gets rejected, the Plaintiff will likely obtain a judgment against you.   

4. The post-summons process

After filing your plea, you and the person taking you to court will be entitled to demand discovery from each other. In short, discovery is when both parties notify each other about what documents they intend to use as evidence in the trial.  

If, after reviewing the discovery documents, the Court decides that you have a strong defence, the case will go to trial.   

5. Do not ignore a summons!  

It is a criminal offence to avoid or ignore the summons served against you. If you do not reply to the summons within 10 days, the Plaintiff’s lawyers have probably submitted a request for a default judgement. It can take up to 3 months, so don’t think the matter has just disappeared.  

As with all legal matters, it is always best to have a legal expert in your corner. LAW FOR ALL’s team of dedicated lawyers will assistant and represent you in your time of need. Check out our affordable policies for more information.