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Summons vs. Subpoena — What's the Difference?

By Tayyaba Rehman & Maham Liaqat — Updated on March 6, 2024
A summons is a document notifying a person of the initiation of a legal proceeding against them, whereas a subpoena compels appearance or the production of evidence in court.
Summons vs. Subpoena — What's the Difference?

Difference Between Summons and Subpoena


Key Differences

A summons is issued to notify a defendant about a legal action taken against them and to summon them to court, outlining the details of the lawsuit and the time frame within which they must respond. Whereas a subpoena, often part of an ongoing legal case, is a formal order for someone to appear in court as a witness or to produce documents or other evidence.
While a summons is generally directed towards parties directly involved in a legal case, such as the defendant, a subpoena can be issued to anyone who is believed to have information pertinent to the case, including third parties not directly involved in the dispute.
A summons is served at the beginning of a legal process to ensure the defendant is aware of the lawsuit and has an opportunity to present their defense. On the other hand, subpoenas can be issued at any point during a legal proceeding to gather evidence or witness testimony that is deemed necessary for the case.
Compliance with a summons is necessary to avoid default judgment, where the court may rule against the defendant without their input. Whereas failure to comply with a subpoena can lead to penalties, including fines or even jail time, for contempt of court.
Summons and subpoenas both play crucial roles in the judicial process but serve different purposes: one to inform and bring parties to court, the other to ensure the availability of evidence and testimony critical to justice.

Comparison Chart


A legal document initiating a lawsuit and requiring the defendant's response.
A legal order compelling someone to appear in court or produce documents.


To notify the defendant of a legal action and to summon them to court.
To obtain testimony or evidence from a witness or to compel evidence production.


Defendants in a lawsuit.
Any individual or entity with relevant information or evidence.

Time of Issuance

At the beginning of a legal proceeding.
At any point during a legal proceeding when evidence is needed.

Consequences of Non-Compliance

Possible default judgment against the defendant.
Contempt of court, which may result in fines or imprisonment.

Compare with Definitions


Issued by a court to a defendant in civil cases.
The summons detailed the claims against her.


A court order to testify or present evidence.
He was served a subpoena to appear in court next month.


A legal document formally starting a legal proceeding and requiring a response.
He received a summons for jury duty.


Essential for gathering evidence.
The subpoena helped procure documents crucial for the case.


Must be formally served to the defendant.
A process server delivered the summons to his house.


Used in both civil and criminal cases.
The prosecutor issued a subpoena for the surveillance videos.


Requires action by the recipient.
After getting the summons, she contacted her lawyer to prepare a response.


Can be directed at individuals not party to the litigation.
The company was subpoenaed for financial records.


Signals the start of legal actions.
Receiving a summons can be unsettling, but it's the first step in the legal process.


Enforceable with penalties for non-compliance.
Ignoring a subpoena can lead to legal consequences.


A summons (also known in England and Wales as a claim form and in the Australian state of New South Wales as a court attendance notice (CAN)) is a legal document issued by a court (a judicial summons) or by an administrative agency of government (an administrative summons) for various purposes.


A subpoena (; also subpœna, supenna or subpena) or witness summons is a writ issued by a government agency, most often a court, to compel testimony by a witness or production of evidence under a penalty for failure. There are two common types of subpoenas: subpoena ad testificandum orders a person to testify before the ordering authority or face punishment.


A call by an authority to appear, come, or do something.


An order issued under the authority of a court or other governmental body, commanding a person to appear and give testimony or to release certain evidence.


An order or process directing a person, especially a defendant in a case, to appear in court.


To serve or summon with such an order.


An order or process directing a person to report to court as a potential juror.


A writ requiring a defendant to appear in court to answer a plaintiff's claim.


To order to appear in or report to court by means of a summons
The defendant was summonsed to the district court.


(legal) A writ requiring someone to appear in court to give testimony.


To serve with a summons.


(transitive) To summon with a subpoena.


A call to do something, especially to come.


A writ commanding the attendance in court, as a witness, of the person on whom it is served, under a penalty; the process by which a defendant in equity is commanded to appear and answer the plaintiff's bill.


(legal) A notice summoning someone to appear in court, as a defendant, juror or witness.


To serve with a writ of subpœna; to command attendance in court by a legal writ, under a penalty in case of disobedience.


(military) A demand for surrender.


A writ issued by court authority to compel the attendance of a witness at a judicial proceeding; disobedience may be punishable as a contempt of court


(transitive) To serve someone with a summons.


Serve or summon with a subpoena;
The witness and her records were subpoenaed


The act of summoning; a call by authority, or by the command of a superior, to appear at a place named, or to attend to some duty.
Special summonses by the king.
This summons . . . unfit either to dispute or disobey.
He sent to summon the seditious, and to offer pardon; but neither summons nor pardon was regarded.


A warning or citation to appear in court; a written notification signed by the proper officer, to be served on a person, warning him to appear in court at a day specified, to answer to the plaintiff, testify as a witness, or the like.


A demand to surrender.


To summon.


A request to be present;
They came at his bidding


An order to appear in person at a given place and time


A writ issued by authority of law; usually compels the defendant's attendance in a civil suit; failure to appear results in a default judgment against the defendant


Call in an official matter, such as to attend court

Common Curiosities

What happens if you ignore a summons?

Ignoring a summons can lead to a default judgment against you, where the court may decide the case in your absence.

What is a summons?

A summons is a legal document that initiates a legal proceeding and notifies the defendant of the lawsuit against them and the need to respond.

Who can issue a subpoena?

A subpoena can be issued by a court or by attorneys involved in the legal proceeding.

Who issues a summons?

A summons is issued by a court at the start of a legal proceeding.

Is a summons only for civil cases?

Primarily, yes. A summons is typically used in civil cases to notify defendants of a lawsuit against them.

Can a subpoena require you to produce documents?

Yes, a subpoena can specifically order you to produce documents, records, or other pieces of evidence relevant to a case.

How is a summons served?

A summons is usually served personally but can also be served by mail or other methods as allowed by the court.

Can a subpoena be issued to anyone?

Yes, a subpoena can be issued to any individual or entity that is believed to have information relevant to a legal case.

What are the consequences of not complying with a subpoena?

Failure to comply with a subpoena can result in contempt of court charges, which may include fines or imprisonment.

What is a subpoena?

A subpoena is a court order requiring someone to appear in court to testify or to produce documents or other evidence.

Can both a summons and a subpoena be used in the same case?

Yes, both can be used in the same case, with a summons to start the legal process and subpoenas issued later to gather evidence.

Can a subpoena be challenged?

Yes, recipients can challenge a subpoena if they believe it is overly broad, unduly burdensome, or irrelevant.

What is the main difference between a summons and a subpoena?

The main difference is their purpose: a summons notifies a defendant of a legal case against them, whereas a subpoena compels someone to provide testimony or evidence.

Are there different types of subpoenas?

Yes, there are two main types: a subpoena ad testificandum requires you to testify in court, and a subpoena duces tecum requires you to produce documents or evidence.

What should I do if I receive a summons?

If you receive a summons, you should read it carefully and consult with a lawyer to prepare your response within the designated timeframe.

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Author Spotlight

Written by
Tayyaba Rehman
Tayyaba Rehman is a distinguished writer, currently serving as a primary contributor to As a researcher in semantics and etymology, Tayyaba's passion for the complexity of languages and their distinctions has found a perfect home on the platform. Tayyaba delves into the intricacies of language, distinguishing between commonly confused words and phrases, thereby providing clarity for readers worldwide.
Co-written by
Maham Liaqat

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