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What Does "Bifurcation" Mean?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: Jessica Seminara
  • Last Modified Date: 04 December 2016
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Bifurcation is the judicial splitting of a trial into two or more parts, so that separate trials, all part of the same case, may decide certain issues. Judges are usually invested with power to exercise this option if they wish to hear and decide on certain matters that are tried alone. There are a number of reasons why a judge might decide to create more than one trial.

In many instances, bifurcation occurs in civil suits, and especially in family law. Criminal trials don’t have quite as many examples, unless the accused plans to plead insanity or reduced mental capacity. When this occurs, judges in many regions will opt for bifurcation.

For these cases, the first trial determines whether the accused committed the crime. A second trial is only undertaken if the jury returns a guilty verdict. The defendant can then direct his lawyer to use the second “case” to argue that his guilt is abridged by insanity or reduced mental capacity, either presently or at the time of the criminal behavior.

This splitting is expedient, meaning it can save time. During the first trial, it isn’t necessarily worthwhile for a defendant’s lawyer to argue about a client’s sanity or mental capacity. The pressing matter of the first trial is to decide on the guilt or innocence of the accused party, irrespective of motive or mental status. It should be stated that some regions don’t follow this rule for bifurcation and present all evidence in one trial.

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In civil court, an analogous example of bifurcation exists. When someone sues another person or corporation for damages, two separate trials could result. One determines the worthiness of the suit. The other evaluates the precise amount of damages that ought to be awarded. Again, these are not always separated, but a judge desiring expediency or the judicial conventions of a region may make it more likely that these issues could be split into two trials.

In family court, judges may frequently have at least two trials for divorce and support, or divorce and custody proceedings. A divorce is often easy to grant, but custody and support hearings can be more time consuming. Moreover, any rulings regarding custody or support often hinge on a divorce being granted. Therefore, it may be easier to allow a divorce trial first.

There is some argument against bifurcation on behalf of family court participants. Sometimes an extra trial can take longer and extremely important matters like child custody might be better decided more quickly. On the other hand, bifurcating a case doesn’t necessarily require that much more time, and the separate trials are more likely to intently focus in an organized manner on each issue.

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