Make a Summons People Will Understand & Use
Use this free guide from Stanford Legal Design Lab to redesign your court summons.
Court teams can use the templates & guides here to transform their existing Summons and related documents, to increase informed participation in the court process.
Quick Start: Summons Templates
Want to get started right away in making a better court summons?
Stanford Legal Design Lab has templates you can customize right away with your local court and case information.
You can edit them on the Canva tool for free, to customize them with your local information.
Civil Summons Model 1: Simple
Our Lab designed this Summons in partnership with local Montana judges and court officials. It has:
- 1 Page Design with Visual Hierarchy: Our team worked hard to efficiently lay out all necessary information into a single page. We used layout techniques to:
- Segment the information in distinct zones
- Call out the key What, Where, and When info
- Put a final Warning to make consequences clear
- Case-Specific Info: in this case, the Summons is customized for an Eviction defendant. It can be adjusted to another case type, replacing the messaging and connections to a different problem area. The specific info includes:
- Services to help a person with this kind of housing problem
- Rights and consequences customized for this case type
- Reference to the person as a ‘tenant’ rather than just a ‘defendant’ — and the plaintiff as the ‘landlord’, to make it more recognizable.
Here is the Canva Template link, that will let you customize this design with your jurisdiction’s logos, information, and case details.
Civil Summons Model 2: Complex
Summons Model 2 is a design our Lab created with court staff and users in Hamilton County, Ohio. Like with Summons Model 1, this design has a 1 Page Design with a Visual Hierarchy and Case-Specific info.
In addition, it has these features as well:
- Photographs of the Court Building to reduce litigant’s confusion about where to appear. This was particularly to address local concerns about litigants in this county who were going to a different justice building, rather than the correct courthouse downtown.
- Text Hotline with Specific Code that would let the litigant text in to get case-specific information and help from the court
- Legal Services, Court Self Help, and Rent Assistance are featured directly on the summons. The preference of the court in this instance was to put the help steps & contact points on the court document, to make it more likely the litigant would see and use them.
- Required, statutory text is still included in the summons, because of legal requirements. But the rest of the summons tries to make the info more plain language and laid out with clear visual cues — which the statutory text does not do with its overwhelming amount of legalese and complex sentences.
Get Help Flier attachment
The Summons may also come with an additional document: the Help Flier. This can direct the user to the next steps, hotlines, in-person help centers, and online forms or other guides that can help them prepare for court.
Our Lab designed this help flier in order to:
- Visually Direct people to the most important next steps. We used arrows, containers, and prominent headings to lay out 3 key ways to deal with this lawsuit summons.
- Put Contact Info prominently, including a photo of the in-person center, to make the services approachable and easy to engage with. We included both phone numbers and websites. We could also have included a QR code, in the place of the phtoograph.
- Limiting the amount of information to reduce overload, stress, and feeling overwhelmed. We heard from users that they wanted simple, clear directions. We then talked with experts to get the top 3 action steps that a person could take to best respond to the lawsuit.
- Grayscale printing friendly in case the court could not print in color. The flier will still communicate clearly even if printed in grayscale.
Use the Canva template of this Help Flier to customize it for your local jurisdiction and details. You can substitute your own legal aid groups, assistance centers, help center photographs, and other details.
Do you have another model or template to share here?
Send it to us at legaldesignlab [at] law.stanford.edu and we can feature it here for others to use.
Background: Why improve your summons?
The summons might be the first paper that alerts a person to a major event: a lawsuit that threatens their money, housing, family, freedom, or security.
Think of the summons not just as a piece of paper, but as a very important tool.
The summons is a tool to ensure people know their rights and feel empowered to participate in the justice system.
If your Summons performs well, it can increase these key outcomes in the justice system:
-> Initial Engagement: A good court summons will capture a person’s attention, so they look at it and spend time reading it through.
-> Legal Understanding: A good summons will be easy for a person to comprehend, so they understand what’s happening and what their rights & obligations are.
-> Ongoing Participation: A good summons will help them be prepared and ready to protect their interests, so they participate in the court process, use services and forms available to them, and are prepared for the court process.
- This can help the person to improve their legal capability.
- It can help the court staff, to have litigants who are more prepared for and more able to navigate the court process.
-> Procedural Justice: A good summons will make the legal system transparent, so a person feels that it is fair and trustworthy. This crucial document can increase a person’s trust in the court, and willingness to abide by its rulings if it can increase their sense that the system is accessible and just.
Does your Court Summons do a good job of achieving these key outcomes?
Follow this How-To Guide to improve your Summons’ performance. By investing in a better design, using one of our templates or going through your own design process, your court team can improve participation rates, reduce default rates, increase uptake of legal assistance, and help people have a fair day in court.
Do Your Own Summons Redesign
Perhaps you want to run your own design process, to create a Summons that is different than the templates shared above.
This part of the guide walks you through the basics of how you can design a new court summons that works for your community, local laws, and court staff.
The Redesign guide leads you through:
Stage 1: Review Your Summons & Legal Requirements
Stage 2: Get Community Input & User Requiremetns
Stage 3: Refine and Finalize new Summons
Stage 4: Pilot, Evaluate, and Continually Refine
1. Review Your Current Summons Design & Legal Requirements
Take stock of what your current documents look like, and what parts of the current design are based on legal requirements.
This initial design review will give you an initial list of:
- Design choices to improve
- Legal requirements to guide your new design
This first step can be done with your court team, possibly in partnership with Self Help Center staff, legal advocates, or others who have regular contact with the Summons’ key audience: the court users.
1a. Design Review
Often, you may find that the Summons may suffer from these design mistakes:
- Written in legalese, with jargon that obscures what the person should take away from it.
- Small, difficult-to-read fonts that make it hard to engage with the content.
- Use of all-caps passages for the most important warnings and rights, which in fact make it more difficult for a person to read. All-caps sentences are difficult to scan and read.
- Lack of hierarchy on the page, so it’s hard to understand or follow it — with key information placed on parts of the page where people aren’t focusing.
- Lack of action steps, so that the summons does not tell people what to do in response, and does not connect them to community resources.
Find which of these design problems your summons might have right now, with bad layout, phrasing, or content.
1b. Legal Requirements
Also, make a list of what is required in court rules, legislation, or otherwise for a Summons for the case type you’re focused on. Are there certain required passages of text or statements you must include? Are there any limits or restrictions on what you can put in the Summons. Make a clear list of these requirements.
2. Get Community Input on Needs, Mistakes, Preferences
Once your core team has run its review, now invite key stakeholders into the process. They can offer feedback and guidance about what their “user requirements” are for a successful summons.
Your team may involve community voices through either 1 or 2 large workshops, in which many different stakeholders come together for 1 hour at a time. Or you may run one-on-one sessions with individual stakeholders to get their input. Whether you do the large workshop or individualized sessions, here are some key steps to follow: get the right stakeholders involved and lead them through interactive design sessions.
2a. Get The Right Stakeholders
Ideally, you will be hearing from past litigants, who have experienced the Summons and can provide informed reactions about what works or doesn’t with the current summons — and how it could be improved.
Including advocates like legal aid lawyers, help center staff, court and community navigators, and others who assist litigants can also provide this user feedback. These advocates have likely seen many different people who have a variety of experiences with the summons and court process. They can provide some overarching insights.
Finally, make sure there are court staff and judicial leaders also giving input. The summons will affect their workload, processes, and decision-making. They can also make sure that the new proposals will comply with court rules, technical requirements, and ethical restrictions around neutrality and advice.
You can invite the stakeholders by emphasizing that this is their chance to have their preferences and needs heard about the new summons.
2b. Run Feedback & Brainstorming Sessions
In your design workshop or individual sessions, you want to lead stakeholders through a 3-part design process.
Making the Summons’ Goals Clear
First, kick off the session with goal-setting. Before you get into the design work, ask them about the big-picture goals of the Summons, from their perspective as a litigant, advocate, or court provider.
Have them write down on a board or post-its:
- What are the litigants’ goals when it comes to the Summons? The behaviors, tasks, and support they need?
- What are the court’s goals regarding the Summons?
This goal-setting exercise should keep the session oriented toward these goals. How do we review the current summons & propose a new one that can reach these goals?
Design Review of Current Summons
Then, have them do a design review of the current summons. Ask them to make notes on it or with post-its. Note down: What works well, that should be kept? What is going wrong, that needs to be fixed?
You can ask the stakeholders to specifically focus on reviewing:
1. Content: What pieces of information are missing?
2. Clarity: What is present but not as clear as it could be?
3. Info Hierarchy: What should be given priority?
Make an Improved Summons
In the final part, ask the stakeholder or team to sketch out a better summons. You might have them cut up the original one to rearrange it into a better hierarchy. Or go to a whiteboard, and do a rough but functional sketch of how to use the real estate of one page to lay out the most information.
The goal of the sketching is not to make a pixel-perfect new document. In fact, we advise against doing this on a computer.
Rather, it should be a sketching exercise to brainstorm roughly what sections of content should be present, what tone/messaging should be used, and what the overall layout and sequence should be.
One team or stakeholder can make multiple sketches. These are like hypotheses, that can be evaluated and possibly combined to make the strongest new summons.
Or review the new design
Perhaps your team already has been working on a new summons design. You can use the 3rd part of the design session to have the stakeholders review this proposal (rather than drafting their own).
You would show them this new summons design, and have them repeat their earlier design review.
You would ask them the same questions about Content, Clarity, and Hierarchy. You can also ask them more specifically:
- What parts do you like/dislike?
- Are there any parts you are confused by?
- What do you think about the overall tone / feel of the document?
- If you had to cut one part, which would it be?
- If you had to add one thing, what would it be?
After this final review, thank them for their contributions. Make sure you leave some time at the end for any additional thoughts or recommendations they have after the structured sessions.
3. Refine & Finalize the New Summons
Once you have held sessions to get stakeholders’ input, your team should then draft the strongest possible Summons that complies with:
- Legal Requirements in your jurisdiction
- User requirements (as past litigants and advocates have advised you), based on their reviews, proposals, and recommendations
- Court requirements, based on technical systems of generating/populating summons, as well as other clerk and judge needs
- Visual design standards and best practices
At this point, we advise your team to consult with a graphic designer to help synthesize these requirements and your rough sketches into a polished draft for final review.
You may also borrow from design principles that our Lab has created from our past court document design work. Share these with any graphic designer you work with.
3a. Key Design Principles for a Court Summons
This covers the most important design rules to follow for an effective summons in a housing case — and it can apply in other case types as well.
Make a Summons have Clear Visual Hierarchy, ensure that it is Scannable to a stressed-out user, rely on Symbols and Photographs in addition to text, lay out the content Using the Page’s Real Estate Wisely so the most important things are in the key places, and harness the power of Nudges and Cues to ensure the content resonates.
3b. Look at other Before & Afters
These principles can be helpful written out, but visual displays of other Summons’ Before and Afters can also help your team and designers put these principles into action.
3c. Loop through final iterations
At this stage in your design process, you will likely go back and forth with your core team, a graphic designer, and court staff who will also be involved in the new summons’ roll-out. Here is where you’ll be getting the draft finalized into a polished, approved final product. You will likely have to deal with many hiccups like:
- Ensuring that the court software system can populate the fields, including that there is enough space to accommodate longer names, unwieldy addresses, or other edge cases. This might not be an issue if the plaintiff or another party is responsible for producing the summons for a given case.
- Getting approval sign-off from judicial leaders, court executives, or others involved in the summons and court rules.
- Making sure the contact details for service providers are stable, ready to handle a larger volume of requests, and reliable enough to be included in an official document.
- Other unexpected tasks.
These final rounds of iteration may take your team away from the proposals and requirements you gathered during the second step of community input. You still need to make sure that the court principles and goals are preserved — so that even if some parts of the presentation or messaging are tweaked, you still have the users’ understanding, engagement, and participation at the heart of the summons’ design.
4. Test and Pilot
Once you have that polished summons that is ready to be distributed, make sure you are still tracking key performance measures.
4a. Track initial performance bugs
First, in the initial weeks of the new summons, be sure to track if there are any performance bugs. Are any of the customized information on the summons, like names, addresses, case numbers, or other info being cut off or shown incorrectly? Are there any reports of people misunderstanding the summons, or the contact numbers or hours being incorrect?
Make sure your core team is checking in once a week for the first month after launching the summons. You can talk through any possible issues and correct them quickly.
4b. Evaluate the impact
During the first 3-6 months, in particular, you can gather data that will help you understand the impact of the new design.
In particular, we recommend you track these indicators during the period while you were still using the old summons (ideally for several years before), and then for the period after you have launched the new summons.
Note, if you have the resources and ability, you may also do a randomized control trial (RCT). You might distribute the new summons to a randomly chosen subset of litigants, and then send the old summons to the remaining litigants. This is a stronger research design to show if the summons has an impact on the key indicators.
Not all courts feel comfortable randomizing a new offering, or might not have the resources to set up a formal RCT. Still be sure to gather pre- and post-pilot data, so you can see if there appears to be an impact.
Default rate and other participation indicators
Track whether people receiving the summons are taking the required next step, which might be:
- appearing at the scheduled court appointment
- filing an answer
- another step, depending on the case type.
Ideally, a good summons will be giving the person enough information and reasons to take this next step.
A person who defaults by not taking this step is an indication that the summons is not performing well.
If the court tracks the default rate of people who receive the new summons versus the old summons, they can show whether the summons seems to contribute to increasing people participating in the court process.
The court may also track other indicators of court participation, even those that are not required to avoid default. This may include filing court documents, making motions, appearing at optional meetings, and other case events. A higher participation rate will show that the summons has successfully encouraged a person to take part in the court process.
Uptake of services
Partner with court self-help centers, legal aid groups, and help websites. Can you find ways to ethically match identifiers of their users to the court data — in order to see if a court user has used these help services?
If you can show that the summons has increased users’ uptake of services, this can show success. The summons would have successfully connected a person with guidance, preparation, and strategies that can help them better participate in their court process.
You might match people by their case ID, name, address, or another unique identifier. Just be sure to have a data privacy and protection plan, to ensure that the sharing of the records will not harm the users and will not violate any privacy obligations.
Exit surveys about people’s experiences
In addition, you might have exit surveys to court users in which you ask them about the summons. These subjective responses can help you understand people’s experiences and thoughts, that won’t be represented in court administrative data.
You might ask them questions like:
- Did you read the court summons? Yes or No
- On a scale of 1-5, how easy was the summons to understand? (1 is low, 5 is high)
- Did the summons help you know what to do? Yes or No
- Did the summons make you feel prepared for coming to court? Yes or No
- What else should the summons include, to help other future people like you?
You can track these through in-person short interviews in the courthouse or help center, with text messages sent to litigants, or through paper surveys handed out or mailed to litigants.
4c. Continuous Feedback & Improvement
Even if your Summons performs well according to these indicators, your team should still have an iteration plan. This is crucial to:
- Keep the information fresh, especially for services that are available, and the best phone number or website for them.
- Tweak design and messages in response to feedback you receive from users, advocates, and court staff
- Update tech tools like QR codes, text-in codes, or other tech integrations that may arise in coming years. Make sure the summons provides digital connections to tools, reminders, forms, and other features online that can support the person’s participation.
Give us feedback!
How can we improve this guide, to make it easier for you to put it into action?
Are you using our templates to create a better summons for your users?
Let us know by writing to us at legaldesignlab [at] law.stanford.edu.
Your feedback can help us make better resources to make a better justice system.