Looking to learn more about the differences between a subpoena vs summons in a civil lawsuit?
What does it mean to receive a summons vs a subpoena?
What should you do and how should you react?
A subpoena and a court summons are two legal documents providing you a notice of something but they are quite different.
In this article, we will provide you all that you need to fully understand the differences between a subpoena and a summons.
Let’s dive right in!
Table of Contents
What is a subpoena vs summons
A subpoena is a formal notice sent by the court or a party to a civil lawsuit demanding from a person to testify or produce documents.
A summons is a formal notice sent by a party to another notifying them that they have filed a lawsuit against them and they’ll need to take action to defend themselves.
A summons can also be a notice sent by one party to a lawsuit to the other party requiring their presence in court for the presentation of an interlocutory motion or a legal application in the course of the legal proceedings.
Both a subpoena and a summons serve as formal notices but they have very different objectives.
Who can a subpoena or a summons be sent to
A subpoena is fundamentally a tool to gather evidence.
It forces someone to testify or produce documents.
The subpoena can be sent to a party involved in the lawsuit or a third-party.
In most cases, when lawyers are involved in the discovery phase of a litigious matter, they will send subpoenas to persons unrelated to the lawsuit to gather evidence.
For example, banks, insurance companies, phone companies and employers are often targetted.
On the other hand, a summons is a notice sent to someone informing them that a demand is being made against them in court and they are being made aware of it.
Often, the summons in the context of a civil lawsuit will be sent to another party involved in the same lawsuit.
When is a subpoena used vs a summons
A subpoena is used by a party to a lawsuit to demand from a person unrelated to the lawsuit to testify before the court, give a deposition or produce documents.
As such, a subpoena is a tool used to gather evidence, either documentary evidence or in the form of an under-oath testimony.
A summons is sort of a “legal notification”.
A person receiving a summons is notified that a lawsuit has been filed against him or her or that a party intends to present a motion to the court.
The notified party is given the opportunity to prepare in case they want to challenge the motion.
A summons is used at the start of a lawsuit to notify the defendant that they are being sued or during the proceedings to notify the presentation of an interlocutory motion.
Who can issue a subpoena vs summons
A subpoena can only be issued by persons authorized by law.
In most jurisdictions, a subpoena can be issued by a lawyer, judge or court clerk.
In other jurisdictions, subpoena powers are granted to other administrative authorities or other legal bodies.
On the other hand, a summons can be issued by anyone really.
A summons is a form of legal notification letting someone know that they are being sued.
A person who is self-representing in court can send a summons necessary to the other party to present a case against them in court.
What’s important is that the summons respect the procedural requirements of the law for it to be valid.
How do you serve a subpoena or a summons
Typically, both a subpoena and a summons will be served via a process server.
A process server is a professional authorized to deliver legal documents and prepare a delivery report.
When a process server servers the subpoena or a summons, he or she will issue a report indicating the date, time and place of the service and the identification of the person who received it.
In some cases, you can also serve the subpoena or a summons via registered mail or even email.
You’ll need to ensure you verify if your jurisdiction authorizes email or registered mail services and what conditions must be legally observed for the service to be valid.
In most cases, a court authorization will be necessary if you are unable to serve a subpoena or a summons in person.
What to do when you receive a subpoena or summons
Whether you receive a subpoena or a summons, you must immediately start preparing yourself.
Let’s see how.
Responding to a subpoena
When you receive a subpoena, you must immediately look at what is being asked from you and make sure you comply.
If you are asked to present yourself to court to testify in front of the judge or give a deposition somewhere as per a subpoena ad testificandum, you must make sure you go on the date and time requested.
If you received a subpoena requiring you to produce documents or material in your possession, also known as a subpoena duces tecum, you must immediately gather the documents and material so you can deliver it on time.
You can legally challenge the subpoena by filing a motion to quash the subpoena, motion to vary the subpoena or motion to vacate the subpoena.
You can also file a motion for a protective order as needed.
Best is to consult a lawyer to see what to do if you don’t agree with the subpoena.
Responding to a summons
If you get a summons, you must immediately read and understand what is being asked from you.
Why are you being sued for?
What is the legal basis?
What are the facts alleged against you?
How much time do you have to respond?
You must start preparing how you will respond to the summons.
You must carefully plan your defense so you can successfully respond to the summons without hurting yourself on your overall case.
Whether you receive a summons or a subpoena, you’ll need to prepare yourself accordingly.
If you are not sure about what to do, you should consult a lawyer.
Consequences of not respecting a subpoena vs summons
The consequences of not respecting a summons or a subpoena can be quite important.
The consequences of ignoring or failing to comply with a subpoena are much different than with a summons.
When you are served with a subpoena, you are essentially “ordered” to do something.
If you fail to respect the subpoena, you are failing to respect an order of the court.
That exposes you to being in contempt of court, get severe fines and even imprisonment.
In some jurisdictions, an arrest warrant may be issued against you to force you to testify at a certain place and at a certain time.
On the flip side, when you get a summons, you are “invited” to come to court.
You are essentially given a notice to come to court to defend yourself with respect to a demand being made against you.
You are not obligated to defend yourself when you get a summons but in most cases it is strongly recommended.
If you do not go to court to present your side of the story, the court can issue a default judgment based on one-sided allegations made against you.
A subpoena and a summons are important documents relating to civil lawsuits.
A subpoena orders you to testify or produce documents while a summons invites you to come to court and defend yourself.
When you are served with a subpoena, you are not being sued.
Rather, you are asked to testify about what you know relating to a legal dispute or provide relevant evidence in your possession.
When you are sent a summons, you are typically asked to come to court and defend yourself something is being asked against you.
Whether you receive a subpoena or a summons, you’ll need to immediately understand what is being asked from you, prepare yourself and get ready to do what’s best for you from a legal point of view.
The consequences of not respecting a summons or a subpoena can be significant, so make sure you don’t just set them aside and forget about it.
We hope this article was useful in helping you distinguish a subpoena from a summons.
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