Difference Between a Court Order & a Subpoena

Man handing over court order in envelope
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If you are involved in a lawsuit of any kind, from a personal injury claim to a contract dispute, you may be issued a subpoena. This document requires you to provide documents or come to court to testify in the case. While the words a different, a subpoena is really just a type of court order. The court is ordering you to do something, and it can find you in contempt of court if you do not do what the judge says.

Understanding a Subpoena

A subpoena is a special type of court order. There are two main types. An "appearance only" subpoena requires you to appear in court and testify as a party to the lawsuit or a witness. The subpoena will also tell you exactly what time and place you will be needed to testify. A "records only" subpoena requires you to bring specific records, documents and/or materials to court with you. In these cases, you will not have to testify in court but only provide the needed materials. There's also the "appearance and records" subpoena which requires you to both testify as a witness and produce the necessary documents requested by the court.

What To Do If You're Subpoenaed

The first thing you should do is call the lawyer who requested that you be subpoenaed. The lawyer will then tell you exactly what they want from you – whether just for you to testify, or if they need records and/or documents you may have. You should then call your personal lawyer for further advice on testifying or gathering materials for court. If you've been improperly served a subpoena, your lawyer can file a "motion to quash," or remove the subpoena against you. If your testimony/documents are necessary, you should then call your employer and explain that you have been subpoenaed and will likely be missing at least one day of work.

Read More: How to Fight a Subpoena

Understanding the Court Order

A court order is a legal document issued by a court of law or judicial officer. It is usually issued at the end of a case, and it normally requires someone to do something or to refrain from doing something. For example, a court order might say that someone pays $5,000 compensation to an injured party. If you fail to comply with a court order, the judge can hold you in contempt of court. This a a criminal offense. Since a subpoena is a type of court order – a command from a judge – you can be found in contempt if you don't come to court and testify or offer requested documents.

Terms Can be Confusing

Along with subpoenas, there are other court orders that can be a bit confusing. A search warrant is a court order allowing police officers to enter your home or property and seize any items from the property. A court summons, or criminal summons, is also very similar to a subpoena. But unlike a subpoena, a court summons is sent to a defendant to inform him that court proceedings are to begin and he must be there or face criminal penalties.

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