Subpoenas and Summons: Commanding Witnesses to Testify in Court


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.

What is a summons?

Legally, a summons is a legal document issued by a court (known as a judicial summons) or by an administrative agency of government (known as an administrative summons) for various purposes.

A judicial summons is addressed to a defendant in a legal proceeding. Typically, the summons will announce to the person to whom it is directed that a legal proceeding has been started against that person, and that a case has been initiated in the issuing court.

In some jurisdictions it may be drafted in dense legal jargon, while several U.S. states expressly require summonses to be drafted in plain English and must begin with the phrase: “Notice! You have been sued.”

Private Investigators as Process Servers

Many private investigators offer processing serving, or service of process, in addition to their investigation services. To find a private detective in your area who can deliver subpoenas, please visit our Private Detective Directory.

More Information

For more legal definitions, visit our Glossary of Legal and Investigation Terms.


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