The Section of Litigation and the Public Awareness Committee of the Maryland State Bar Association have prepared this information. It is intended to inform the public and not serve as legal advice.
You’ve Been Served a Subpoena: Don’t Panic
You’ve been served a subpoena to appear and testify in a lawsuit in which you are not a party. The subpoena may direct you to appear at a law office to give deposition testimony or may direct you to appear in court to give trial testimony, and may request that you bring certain documents with you. In either event, you are upset that someone (sometimes a sheriff) has appeared at your home or workplace with a subpoena and apprehensive about what will be expected of you when testifying. You know very little about the case and what you do know happened so long ago that you don’t trust your recollection.
Your concern about a sheriff serving you with a subpoena in front of friends and neighbors is an understandable one. You might think that the sheriff’s appearance will cause others to believe that you are “in trouble with the law.” You should understand that the party calling you as a witness was required by law to serve you with a subpoena to assure your appearance and testimony. Service of the subpoena was not designed to embarrass you, but protect the parties to the lawsuit.
If you have questions about the subpoena, the scheduling of your testimony or the underlying litigation, you should call the attorney for the party who has subpoenaed you. The individual’s name and telephone number is usually found on the subpoena.
Witnesses are frequently asked to testify twice in connection with a single matter. The first time you testify may be on deposition. Deposition testimony is typically given in a conference room setting rather than in a courtroom. The purpose of a deposition is to find out what you know about the case. The lawyers for the parties, possibly the parties themselves, and a court reporter will be present.
You will take an oath to tell the truth. The court reporter will record all the questions asked by the lawyers and all responses given by you. The deposition may be taken many months or even years before the case is actually tried. The purpose of the deposition testimony is to record your recollections of the events at a time when they are relatively fresh in your mind. Afterward, testimony will be typed in a deposition transcript after it is given, and you will be given the opportunity to read and sign it. If you are at all concerned that the court reporter may have improperly recorded your testimony, you should exercise your right to read and sign the transcript and correct those areas in the transcript where your testimony is incorrectly recorded.
Your Day in Court
The second time you testily may be in a courtroom before a judge and possibly, a jury. You may wonder why you have to testify a second time when you have already given your deposition testimony. You should understand that the judge and jurors were not present when you gave your deposition testimony. In most instances the rules of court forbid the use of your deposition without the use of your live testimony. Remember that the lawyers investigate the case thoroughly and know what testimony they must present. If they judge your testimony to be essential, they will call you. Otherwise, you will not receive a subpoena.
Being a Witness is Serious Business
Remember that your role as a witness in the judicial system is an extremely important one. Without witnesses, judges, and jurors could not fairly decide cases. Your lack of cooperation as witness or your refusal to testify could lead to a miscarriage of justice. You must take your responsibility as a witness seriously and use your best efforts to present a clear and accurate picture of what happened.
DO’s and DON’Ts For Testifying in Court or on Deposition
Being a Witness © 1986, MSBA, Inc. Revised 1993
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