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    June 14, 2023
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    Andrew Linden

Understanding a Legal Conundrum: Subpoenas in Washington State Family Law

What are subpoenas? What do they do, what do they demand, and what can happen if you ignore them? Learn more about the requirements and uses of subpoenas in civil discovery.

Have you ever watched a courtroom drama where an attorney dramatically serves a subpoena to an unsuspecting witness? It’s a classic television trope, but the reality of a subpoena, especially within the realm of Washington State family law, is a bit more complex. This article aims to demystify subpoenas, shedding light on their nature, advantages, drawbacks, and limitations.

At its most basic level, a subpoena is a legal document that commands an individual to appear in court or produce certain documents. These compelling instruments are not just confined to the realm of crime dramas; they are also integral to family law proceedings in Washington State, where they can be used to gather crucial evidence or testimony.

The chief advantage of a subpoena is its compelling power. In family law cases, it is not uncommon for individuals to be reluctant to share sensitive information or even to participate in proceedings. A subpoena, once properly served, legally obligates an individual to comply, thus providing attorneys and their clients with a vital tool for information gathering.

Let’s say, for example, a divorcing couple is locked in a contentious child custody battle. One party believes that another party has concealed certain information that might sway the court’s decision in their favor. In this scenario, the party’s attorney may issue a subpoena to the third party individual or business, ordering them to produce the pertinent information. This subpoena not only ensures access to potentially decisive information, but it also aids in maintaining the integrity of the family law process.

However, subpoenas are not without their drawbacks. For one, they can escalate conflict. While necessary in some cases, compelling someone to testify or produce sensitive documents can strain relationships and add an extra layer of tension to an already fraught situation. As family law often involves personal and emotional matters, this escalation could have lasting effects on familial relationships.

Subpoenas also come with certain limitations. In Washington State, a subpoena must be “reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.” That means an attorney cannot simply use it as a fishing expedition. For example, they can’t subpoena bank records from ten years ago unless they can demonstrate that the information contained in those records is pertinent to the current case.

Additionally, the subpoenaed party can challenge the subpoena if they believe it is oppressive, unreasonable, or seeks privileged information. For instance, if the subpoena calls for a person to produce their medical records, they might object based on the argument that this information is privileged and private. In such cases, the court will decide if the subpoena stands, or if it should be quashed or modified.

It’s also worth noting that the subpoena process isn’t instantaneous. After the attorney drafts the subpoena, it must be properly served to the individual, which can take time. Furthermore, if the subpoena is for documents, the individual typically has a set period (usually about two weeks in Washington State) to respond.

One common misconception is that the receipt of a subpoena automatically implies wrongdoing or an impending legal battle. In reality, a subpoena doesn’t necessarily mean the person is in trouble; it simply means that their presence or information they possess is required for a legal process. It’s important for anyone receiving a subpoena to consult with an attorney to understand their rights and responsibilities, rather than simply ignoring the subpoena, which can result in legal penalties.

In conclusion, subpoenas are powerful legal tools used in Washington State family law cases. They can ensure the availability of key witnesses and evidence, and can play a pivotal role in the fair resolution of family law disputes. However, they must be used carefully, considering both their potential to exacerbate conflict and their legal limitations. As with any legal issue, the counsel of a knowledgeable family law attorney is invaluable when navigating the complexities of subpoenas.


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Article by Andrew Linden
Associate Attorney