The Difference Between a Summons and Subpoena

Two legal documentations — summons and subpoenas — look similar but are quite different. Learn more about the differences between these two common legal documents.

Differences in Their Purpose

The biggest difference between a summons and a subpoena is the purpose of the document. One is issued as a way to notify an individual of an upcoming case, while the other is issued as a way to obtain some type of information or evidence.

A summons is used to officially notify a person or company that a lawsuit is being filed against them. Notification must be given of an upcoming lawsuit so that the defendant has the ability to appear in court and present his or her case.

A subpoena, on the other hand, is a legal document that orders a person to provide some type of information or evidence for an upcoming civil or criminal case. Subpoenas can be issued to obtain certain types of documents, physical types of evidence, testimony, or eyewitness accounts.

Who Receives a Summons or a Subpoena?

A summons is sent only to an individual who has been named as a defendant in an upcoming lawsuit. In order for a lawsuit to go forward, every person who is listed as a defendant in a lawsuit must be issued a summons.

A summons is sometimes issued for jury duty. In this case, you are being asked to appear for jury duty — you are not being sued.

A subpoena is issued to anyone who has the information or evidence that is being requested. A subpoena can be given to a witness, defendant, medical expert or any person or company that has the information/evidence that is being requested for an upcoming case.

What You Must Do if You Get a Summons or Subpoena

What you do after receiving one of these legal documents will depend upon what type of document you receive. For one document, you must appear in court or do what it says, while the other gives you the option of appearing in court.

Think of a summons as a legal invitation. If you were to receive a summons, you are not required to appear in court. However, if you do not appear in court, there is a good chance that you will lose your case and a default judgment will be issued against you.

When you receive a subpoena, you do not have the option to ignore it. You are required to follow through with whatever the subpoena requests. For example, if the subpoena asks that you produce certain documentation, you must produce it. If it asks for you to appear in court to testify or show up for a deposition, you will be required to provide your testimony.

If you do not provide what the subpoena requests, you could be held in contempt of court. Should this happen, you could be required to serve time in jail or pay a fine.

Speak with an Attorney if You Receive a Summons or Subpoena

Every summons or subpoena is unique in what it asks you to do and how you respond. If you have received a summons or subpoena, you should consult with an attorney at the Tough Law Firm. Our attorneys can explain the legal document to you and provide you with advice on how you should respond to the situation.

Contact us to request a consultation to discuss your recently received summons or subpoena.

Diana Tough

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