A bench trial is a trial in which there is no jury. Instead, the entire case is presented directly to the judge. In most state courts, a civil law trial will be a bench trial unless the plaintiff or defendant requests a jury trial specifically. In most criminal cases, however, the defendant will receive a jury trial unless he or she specifically asks for a bench trial.
Court cases, whether civil or criminal, are designed to resolve disputes by each side offering evidence to support their arguments or undermine the other side’s arguments. This evidence is then weighed by the jury, in a jury trial, or by the judge in a bench trial, and the law that governs the case is applied to the evidence to determine what the case’s outcome should be.
Most questions in court cases can be labeled either “questions of fact” or “questions of law.” Questions of fact ask what actually happened in this particular case, while questions of law ask whether a certain law should apply to the case. For instance, suppose that the plaintiff in a personal injury case was injured when she was crossing a road on foot and the defendant hit her with his car. A question of fact in this case might be whether the light facing the defendant was red or green. A question of law, on the other hand, might be whether the law of negligence applies to the case. Because questions of law often depend on which facts have been proven in the case, questions of fact are usually resolved before questions of law.
In a jury trial, the jury is responsible for answering questions of fact, and the judge is responsible for answering questions of the law that applies to those facts. In a bench trial, however, the judge is responsible for questions of both law and fact. In some cases, a party or her attorney will deliberately choose a bench trial over a jury trial because there are few or no disputed questions of fact, and the party has confidence that a judge will decide the legal questions in her favor.
The same rules of court procedure and evidence used in jury trials also apply to bench trials. Except for the right to a jury, both parties have the same legal rights in bench trials as in jury trials. The plaintiff in a civil jury trial is still responsible for proving every element of her case by a preponderance of the evidence.
In reality, however, bench trials are often quicker and less formal than jury trials. There are usually few or no motions in limine to discuss, because there is no jury that might be prejudiced by certain evidence. The court can also skip the voir dire phase entirely, since the entire purpose of voir dire is to select jury members. Finally, the court often skips the reading of the jury instructions or the judge reads them silently for reference, instead of reading them aloud to the courtroom.
People who are representing themselves in civil or criminal cases may be told that they should opt for a bench trial instead of a jury trial, in order to avoid the complexities of choosing a jury. The wisest course of action in any case, however, is to consult an attorney with experience in similar cases. Since the facts of each case are different, it’s best to find out the pros and cons of each option in one’s own case, instead of adopting a one-size-fits-all piece of advice.