Definition of jury trial
jury trial (plural jury trials)
- (law): A legal process in which the guilt or liability of a party is determined by a jury, a group of citizens selected from the local population.
A jury trial (or trial by jury) is a legal proceeding in which a jury either makes a decision or makes findings of fact which are then applied by a judge. It is distinguished from a bench trial, in which a judge or panel of judges make all decisions.
English common law and the United States Constitution recognize the right to a jury trial to be a fundamental civil liberty or civil right that allows the accused to choose whether to be judged by judges or a jury. The use of jury trials evolved within common law systems rather than civil law systems. Jury trials are of far less importance (or of no importance) in countries that do not have a common law system.
Juries usually weigh the evidence and testimony to determine questions of fact, while judges usually rule on questions of law. Jury determination of questions of law, sometimes called jury nullification, may lead to the overturning of a verdict by the judge.
The role of jury trials
- In most common law jurisdictions, the jury is responsible for finding the facts of the case, while the judge determines the law. These "peers of the accused" are responsible for listening to a dispute, evaluating the evidence presented, deciding on the facts, and making a decision in accordance with the rules of law and their jury instructions. Typically, the jury only judges guilt or a verdict of not guilty, but the actual penalty is set by the judge. An interesting innovation was introduced in Russia in the judicial reform of Alexander II: unlike in modern jury trials, jurors decided not only whether the defendant was guilty or not guilty, but they had the third choice: "Guilty, but not to be punished", since Alexander II believed that justice without morality is wrong.
- In France and some countries organized in the same fashion, the jury and several professional judges sit together to determine guilt first. Then, if guilt is determined, they decide the appropriate penalty.
Some jurisdictions with jury trials allow the defendant to waive their right to a jury trial, this leading to a bench trial. Jury trials tend to occur only when a crime is considered serious. In some jurisdictions, such as France and Brazil, jury trials are reserved, and compulsory, for the most severe crimes and are not available for civil cases. In Brazil, for example, trials by jury are applied in cases of First and Second-degree murders, even if only attempted. In others, such as the United Kingdom, jury trials are only available for criminal cases and very specific civil cases (defamation, malicious prosecution, civil fraud and false imprisonment). In the United States, jury trials are available in both civil and criminal cases. In Canada, an individual charged with an indictable offence may elect to be tried by a judge alone in a provincial court, by judge alone in a superior court, or by judge and jury in a superior court; summary offences cannot be tried by jury.
In the United States, because jury trials tend to be high profile, the general public tends to overestimate the frequency of jury trials. Approximately 150,000 jury trials are conducted in state courts in the U.S., and an additional 5,000 jury trials are conducted in federal courts. Two-thirds of jury trials are criminal trials, while one-third are civil and "other" (e.g., family, municipal ordinance, traffic). Nevertheless, the vast majority of cases are in fact settled by plea bargain, which removes the need for a jury trial.
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