What Is the Difference Between a Jury Trial and a Bench Trial?

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Did you know that if you have to go to court, you may have a choice about who will decide your case?

A defendant almost always selects to have a trial by jury in criminal cases because a trial by jury is a constitutional right.  However, in civil cases, you may have the option to choose whether you would like your case decided by a judge or a jury. How do you decide?

What is a Bench Trial? 

In a bench trial, a case is decided by a judge without a jury.  A judge in a bench trial plays two roles: The finder of fact who determines the credibility of the evidence and the legal expert that rules on all legal issues.

Some types of civil cases can only be decided by a judge.  In South Carolina, these cases are ones that only matters of equity, such as foreclosures or injunctions.  In addition, there is no right to a jury in family court cases, such as divorces.

Cases that arise in law, such as those that involve determining how much money to award to an injured party, can typically be decided by either a judge or a jury.

However, even in civil cases, there is also a constitutional right to a jury, so both parties must consent to have a bench trial instead of a trial by jury.

One of the benefits of bench trials is that they tend to take less time than jury trials.  This means they are sometimes preferred by parties who need a speedy resolution to a legal issue.

Parties that are generally disliked by the public, such as insurance companies, homeowners’ associations, or unpopular political parties, may prefer bench trials.

Other parties prefer a bench trial if it involves complicated issues that they think will confuse a jury or if the facts are offensive or embarrassing.

Bench trials often have outcomes that are more favorable to defendants.  For that reason, defense attorneys may recommend bench trials to their clients, whereas plaintiff attorneys may recommend that their clients demand jury trials.  

Choosing to have a judge act as the fact-finder in your trial is a big decision that should be discussed with an attorney.

What is a Jury Trial? 

Plaintiffs often choose a trial by jury.  Juries tend to be more sympathetic to plaintiffs and can be swayed by their emotions.  Juries are known for occasionally awarding more substantial verdicts than judges. Juries may decide a case for completely different reasons than a judge because they are looking at the case as an everyday person, instead of as a legal professional.

However, jury trials offer their own set of challenges.  Attorneys in a jury trial must carefully select a jury, know how to relate to the jury, and go through a time-consuming process of explaining the details of complex legal issues to people who do not have the same legal training as judges.  In addition, juries in some venues may be so conservative in their valuation of certain types of cases that judges may be more likely to award fully for each item of damage for which an injured person is entitled to recover under the law.

Experienced Trial Attorneys Know the Benefits of Each Kind of Trier of Fact

It’s essential to speak with an experienced trial attorney before choosing between a jury or bench trial.  Your attorney will go over the pros and cons of each type of trial for your particular case and advise you of the best course of action. If you would like to speak to an experienced attorney about your case, contact the attorneys at David R. Price Jr., P.A. today for a free consultation.

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