Is There A Difference Between A Summons And A Subpoena?

A summons and a subpoena are both examples of legal documents that can be served. Others include writs, complaints, small claims, and divorce papers. Typically, these documents are served by a certified and professional process server. If you have been served a summons or a subpoena, it is normal to feel confused or even anxious. Before acting on your court documents, it is important to understand what each means and especially, the differences between summons and subpoenas.


A summons (Citation in some states) is classified as a type of legal notice that informs a party of a civil lawsuit that has been filed against them. This constitutes the commencement of a litigation process. Typically, the summons will have two documents. The first explicates the particulars of the claim including the name of the plaintiff and defendant, the court which has issued the summons as well as the exact nature of the claims. The second document is the summons itself which addresses the defendant and invites him/her for a hearing or deadline date to file a written response with the court. There are two broad types of summons which include:

  • Administrative summons: Issued by an authorized administrative body for investigative purposes. This can include tax, immigration, or labor matters or even professional code of conduct.
  • Civil summons: Issued by the court and to a person or entity. Such summonses include intellectual property infringement, injunctions (such as restraining orders) and owed money.


A subpoena, a specific type of a writ, which orders an individual or business entity, to produce some form of evidence. This can take multiple forms such as documents, books, emails or even DNA samples. They are primarily used to help attorneys gather the requisite evidence needed to build their case and ultimately help their clients. Subpoenas can fall under three categories, namely:

  • Witness Subpoena: issued when the presence of a person, often an expert witness, is required at a deposition or trial to provide specific information.
  • Subpoena Duces Tecum: issued when a person is required to produce documents under his/her Their presence may not be required and the relevant documents can be submitted by mail or electronically by a specified date, depending on the wording on the Subpoena.
  • Deposition Subpoena: issued during the discovery process wherein an individual’s physical presence or submission of documents may be required, which may or may not be used later in a trial.

Differences between Summons and Subpoenas

While summonses and subpoenas may seem similar, a key difference between them lies in when they are issued. Summonses are mandatory for the commencement of a legal case. Subpoenas, on the other hand, are issued when legal proceedings are underway, and an attorney needs to build a case with evidence. Summonses are usually issued when a lawsuit is taken against a defendant while subpoenas usually only require evidence, or testimony. Despite their differences, both documents necessitate compliance with the orders; otherwise, legal ramifications may follow.