What is a Witness Subpoena?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 March 2020
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A witness subpoena is a summons that legally requires an individual to appear in court to give evidence or testimony. Subpoenas are often issued in cases when a witness will not voluntarily come forward to testify. Legal proceedings regarding the serving of a subpoena may vary depending on local laws. It is important to ensure that the subpoena is served legally, otherwise the witness may be dismissed or his evidence and testimony could be rendered inadmissible.

A subpoena, or witness summons, must be approved by the court, usually through the court clerk. Attorneys or principal case members such as the defendant, can submit a list of witnesses for approval. The court clerk then fills out a subpoena form which must be served to the witness. A witness subpoena will typically state the date and time of the witness's ordered appearance; failure to appear can result in legal penalties such as fines or even jail time.

If a trial is postponed or delayed, a witness may be given an alternate date of appearance. Even though the date has changed, the witness is still under legal order to appear when requested. In some courts, witnesses can request a witness fee to cover loss of income and travel expenses. The amount of the witness fee varies widely between jurisdictions.


A witness subpoena is often served by an attorney directly to the witness, although some lawyers prefer to hire a service to issue documents to witnesses. In small claims court or cases when an individual is representing him or herself before the court, anyone can deliver an approved witness subpoena with the exception of the defendant or accuser. In these cases, some legal experts recommend bringing a law enforcement agent or lawyer along to ensure that proper practices are followed.

If a witness subpoena is approved for a minor, the document must be served to a parent, guardian, or other adult responsible for the minor. In this case, the person served is typically responsible for ensuring that the minor appears in court at the time specified. If the minor is not brought to court in accordance with the subpoena, the guardian may be held in contempt and charged.

Receiving a witness subpoena does not mean that the witness is charged or suspected of a crime. It simply requires an individual who may possess pertinent information to speak with the court. Naturally, if in the process of trial proceedings it is deemed that a witness committed or helped to commit a crime, charges may be filed. If a witness receives a summons and believes that his or her testimony may result in charges, many legal experts recommend hiring an attorney immediately.


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Post 1

If a lawyer wants to get someone furious at him or her, that attorney should serve up a witness subpoena. What could be more fun than being dragged into court against your will to help resolve a matter that you don't care about one whit?

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