Subpoenas and Summons: Commanding Witnesses to Testify in a Legal Case

Serving a summons

What is a subpoena?

A subpoena, sometimes referred to as a summons, is a writ issued by a court of law that commands the presence of a witness to testify, under a penalty for failure.

Subpoena Process

Subpoenas are usually issued by the clerk of the court in the name of the judge presiding over the case. Additionally, court rules may permit lawyers to issue subpoenas themselves in their capacity as officers of the court. Typically subpoenas are issued “in blank” and it is the responsibility of the lawyers representing the plaintiff or defendant on whose behalf the testimony is to be given to serve the subpoena to the witness.

The subpoena will usually be produced on the letterhead of the court where the case is filed, naming the parties to the case, and is addressed by name to the person whose testimony is being sought.  The subpoena will contain the language such as “You are hereby commanded to report in person to the clerk of this court” or similar, describing the specific location, scheduled date and time of the appearance.

Some issuing jurisdictions include an admonishment on the subpoena advising the subject of the criminal penalty for failure to comply with a subpoena, and reminding them not to leave the court facilities until excused by a competent authority. In some situations the person is paid.

Subpoenas are delivered by process servers.


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