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Navigating legal or regulatory processes

Subpoenas — What are a physician's responsibilities?

A woman handing a document to another person

6 minutes

Published: March 1995 /
Revised: May 2023

The information in this article was correct at the time of publishing

Many physicians will have the experience of being served with a subpoena (sometimes referred to as a "summons") to appear as a witness before a court. A variety of other tribunals (including medical regulatory authorities [Colleges], commissions, inquiries, inquests, and military boards) may also have the authority to issue subpoenas to require a witness to appear before it to give evidence.

What is a subpoena?

A subpoena is a legal document that most often orders a witness to attend at proceedings. The subpoena will set out the time, date, and place of the required attendance. Usually, the subpoena also directs the witness to bring any documents or materials that are relevant to the action or court proceeding.

What should you do if:

  • You are unsure about what evidence or documents are required?
  • You know the name of the accused but not the patient? (This may arise in criminal cases where the subpoena does not typically identify the name of the patient.)
  • You have a fully-booked OR/office or a vacation planned for the date your attendance is required?
  • The specified date is tomorrow and there is no time to reschedule patient appointments or obtain copies of the records?

Contacting the legal counsel who served the subpoena is typically a useful first step in resolving your concerns. For scheduling matters, there is often flexibility regarding the date and time indicated on the subpoena. Legal counsel, courts, or tribunals will generally be as reasonable as possible in trying to accommodate schedules and providing advance notice of when actual attendance in court or at the hearing is necessary. The lawyer who served the subpoena can often arrange for a mutually convenient time for you to attend. During this contact, no personal health information should be revealed without the patient's authorization or a legal order explicitly requiring you to do so.

Can you ignore the subpoena?

Serious sanctions can be imposed if you ignore a subpoena or choose not to attend the proceeding.

Court schedules and witness requirements can change quickly. Sometimes subpoenas are served only as a precautionary measure and you may not be needed as a witness after all. It is also possible that the case settles or for some other reason does not proceed and the parties have forgotten to advise you. However, without proper confirmation, preferably in writing, from the lawyer who issued the subpoena, you should never assume that your attendance is not required.

Does a subpoena influence your responsibility to maintain patient confidentiality?

A subpoena is not an authorization to breach patient confidentiality. It is a command to attend. A subpoena alone does not grant the physician authority to speak to the lawyer who issued the subpoena or to other third parties (such as police officers) about the contents of patient records or any aspect of a patient's care before appearing in court. Remember that you may only provide records or discuss patient care with a third party if you have your patient's authorization to do so (preferably in writing) or if you are required by law (such as through a court order explicitly requiring you to do so).

Can you provide the patient's records or a report instead of attending?

In some cases, you may be offered the opportunity to provide records or a report instead of attending. This should be done only with the patient's consent to release the records to the lawyer, court, or tribunal, or pursuant to a court order. Whenever possible, the patient's authorization should be in writing and kept on file in case it has to be produced in the future.

Otherwise, a subpoena is generally not sufficient authority for you to release records before appearing in court. If the subpoena requires, you must bring the original paper records or a printout of any electronic records with you to court and be prepared to release them (or a copy) when ordered by the judge or upon authorization from your patient. If the records were created in electronic form, you may also be required to bring additional information stored in the electronic record system, including "metadata" indicating when an entry was created and by whom, and whether there have since been any changes to it. The lawyer who issued the subpoena may be able to help identify the necessary information or data that you should bring with you from an electronic record.

It is possible that you may also receive a subpoena to attend issued by a tribunal other than a court (e.g., College, human rights commission, coroner, military tribunal, or commission of inquiry.) In these circumstances, it is important to carefully read what is being asked of you in the document immediately upon receipt. The rules about what you may be required to do through a subpoena vary. For example, in limited circumstances a subpoena issued by some tribunals may require you to produce documents prior to appearing as a witness. In these circumstances, you are encouraged to contact the CMPA upon receipt of the subpoena for advice on your obligations.

What if you are served with a subpoena issued in another province or country?

You may receive a subpoena issued by a court or tribunal in another province, territory, or country. In most provinces and territories, a subpoena issued in another province or territory in Canada will be considered enforceable. However, for a subpoena issued outside of Canada to be enforceable, it generally must be endorsed or issued by the applicable provincial or territorial court in the location where it is being served. CMPA members served with a subpoena issued by a court in another jurisdiction are strongly encouraged to contact the CMPA before taking any further action.

The lawyer says you have to attend, what now?

As mentioned above, contact should be made with the person who sent the subpoena for the purpose of scheduling your appearance. Once you attend the proceeding and are sworn in, you will be directed by the judge or presiding officer to answer the questions asked of you and at this time you are protected from an allegation of breach of confidentiality.

Will I be paid?

If you must appear as a witness, you should generally be provided with attendance money. The rules of courts and tribunals in many provinces and territories set out tariffs for calculating attendance money for witnesses. Although witnesses subpoenaed to appear at a criminal trial are entitled to a minimal witness fee and travel costs under the Criminal Code of Canada, this rarely occurs in practice. In any event, these funds are always insufficient. While attendance money is calculated in accordance with the rules, it should be noted that income lost as a result of time taken off to testify is not recoverable.

If there is any doubt as to your obligations or the appropriate action to take when served with a subpoena, members are urged to call the CMPA promptly for assistance.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this learning material is for general educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific professional medical or legal advice, nor to constitute a "standard of care" for Canadian healthcare professionals. The use of CMPA learning resources is subject to the foregoing as well as the CMPA's Terms of Use.