23 Jun 20

What is a Subpoena vs Summons? List of Differences

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Last Updated on: 14th August 2023, 11:57 pm

Federal Prosecutors: Subpoenas vs. Summons

Federal prosecutors make use of both subpoenas and summons for similar reasons. Both of these legal documents provide individuals with written notice of an impending court hearing. There are important differences between the two documents, however. As we will discuss below, these differences involve the identity of the person being served, when they are given notice, and what the purpose of the notice is.


A summons is a formal notice of the filing of a lawsuit. In federal court, it is handed to the person being sued along with a copy of the complaint. The purpose of a summons is to establish that the defendant to a lawsuit is aware if its filing. A lawsuit that proceeds without the defendant having proper notice is in violation of their right to due process under the law.

Every jurisdiction has its own rules for serving a summons. Typically, service must be made by specific parties. These could include sheriff’s deputies, private process servers, or even by certified, restricted mail.

Service by sheriff is arguably the most common method. In some jurisdictions, using the sheriff is mandatory. Typically, this process involves paying the sheriff’s office a fee in exchange for serving the document. While making use of the sheriff is often cost effective, the results of their efforts can vary.

Whether or not private process servers are allowed depends on state law and local court rules. Often, a judge must grant a request to appoint a special process server. While this option is routinely more expensive than the sheriff, private process servers often get better results.

Service of a summons through mail is only allowed when using certified mail with a restricted return receipt. Without restricted service, there is no guarantee that the defendant actually received the pleadings.

Regardless of the method, it is vital to serve every party to a lawsuit. The failure to property serve each defendant in the case could cost you time and money.


Like a summons, a subpoena is also a legal document that requires an individual to appear at court. However, the subpoena does not notify a person of a pending lawsuit against them. Instead, it formally requires that individual to appear in court, provide documents relevant to a lawsuit, or sit for a deposition.

A subpoena must be served directly to the person in question. These documents are used in a number of situations, particularly in criminal cases where a witness to a crime is reluctant to testify. A subpoena has the weight of the court behind it and could result in contempt charges for anyone that fails to comply.

Subpoenas are also commonly used during the discovery process. In some cases, documents that are private or protected by a degree of confidentiality might be relevant to a lawsuit. If the owner refuses to provide those documents willingly, a subpoena can require them to do so.

Much like with a summons, the court typically provides a form for subpoenas. These forms include the relevant case information, the contact information for the witness, and the documents they are required to bring. In most jurisdictions, witnesses that testify in person are entitled to witness fees or travel reimbursement.

Dealing with a Subpoena or Summons

If you have been served with a subpoena or a summons, it is important that you take the matter seriously. Each document carries the weight of the court behind it. The failure to respond to a summons could see you lose the lawsuit filed against you automatically. Once a judgment is entered against you, it can be very difficult to undo the damage that was done.

Failing to respond to a subpoena could see you face criminal consequences including jail time of a steep fine. While courts may not rush to arrest potential witnesses, you risk jail time by ignoring a subpoena in a state or federal case.

Never ignore legal documents when they are served on you. If you are unsure of your next steps, discuss your option with an experienced attorney right away.