Bench Trial: Definition & Process

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

In this lesson, we will learn about the concept of a bench trial, which is a type of trial without a jury. We will contrast this with the idea of a jury trial in the American court system.

Bench Trials

A bench trial is an unusual form of a trial where there is not a jury present. The judge is responsible for hearing the case, ruling on motions, and eventually, rendering a verdict.

In all criminal cases and most civil cases in the United States, a jury is paneled of people from the community. They are asked to listen to both the prosecutor (or plaintiff, in civil cases) who brings the case and the defendant (who is accused of some crime or wrongdoing), and then make a decision about a question of fact. A question of fact is the decision whether something is true or false. For example, a jury trial on a criminal case will determine if the defendant's alibi on the day of a crime makes sense, giving the other witnesses' testimony and the evidence.

In these jury trials, the judge is responsible for applying the law fairly and impartially; he or she makes rulings on questions of law, whether or not certain things should happen during the trial. For example, a judge decides if evidence should be admitted or a witness can testify on a particular issue, and rules on motions.

In a bench trial, however, judges act as triers of fact and law; they rule on questions of fact and questions of law. They make a decision about all of the legal issues that arise during the trial and give a final verdict.

When a Bench Trial May Be Used

A bench trial is always found when there is an injunction to rule on. An injunction is a formal request to have the court force the defendant to do something or not do something instead of pay monetary damages. For example, a plaintiff may seek an injunction to request that her ex-husband complies with a restraining order and stays away from her home and place of work.

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