What is Trial by Jury?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

A trial by jury is a legal method of determining the outcome of an issue brought before a court. This may be a civil issue or the determination of guilt or innocence of a defendant accused of a crime. In the US, and in places like the UK, trial by jury is common and the way in which many trials are resolved. In many other countries, the idea of jury trial is roundly mocked, and it’s considered inappropriate to allow people who have no experience with the law to render decisions about it.

The outcome of a court trial may be determined by a jury.
The outcome of a court trial may be determined by a jury.

The concept of trial by jury occurs first in Ancient Greece. Court cases were decided by citizen jurors. Unlike today in many American, and UK courts, the number of jurors was much higher. There were usually at least 500 citizens who might help decide an issue, and for very serious cases, usually at least 1000 citizens were needed as jurors.

During the trial a juror must give equal consideration to each piece of evidence that is presented.
During the trial a juror must give equal consideration to each piece of evidence that is presented.

Other countries had various precedents for asking lay people to sit in judgment on legal issues, but the first juries that appear similar to modern ones really occurred in the 1200s in England. At that point, there was a group of what might be considered a grand jury. They were more like detectives than jurors, could find crimes committed and report them in their area. This gradually shifted to jurors being less investigators and more deciding the fate of those accused. Within a few centuries, jurors couldn’t be the accusers or Grand Jury.

Sometimes judges can overturn jury verdicts.
Sometimes judges can overturn jury verdicts.

This basic principal, that accusers cannot be deciders about the merits of a case, is held very dear in many countries that now offer a trial by jury. In many countries there are grand juries that determine whether enough evidence exists to proceed to a trial. When a person gets to a trial, the idea of having peer jurors is a check and balance to the system. Obviously if grand jurors believe a person may be guilty they’re much more likely to decide he is guilty. A jury of peers or people who are not invested in a case until the moment they’re selected to hear it, is thought to make a legal system fair and ensure someone a fair hearing of a case prior to a decision being rendered.

Jury members review pieces of evidence to determine guilt.
Jury members review pieces of evidence to determine guilt.

There are different rules depending on country or even state as to who is eligible for a trial by jury. In the US and UK most criminal cases grant the accused the right to a trial by jury. This may vary when the person’s crime is very minor or if the person is under the age of 18. Civil cases may or may not come attached with this right, and people are often able to waive the right to a jury trial, and do so by coming to agreements or plea-bargaining prior to the case being heard by a court.

Unanimous decision isn’t always required. In civil courts the decision might simply require a majority of jurors to vote one way. Even in criminal law in the UK, the jury doesn’t have to be unanimous, and can determine guilt or innocence based on 10 out of 12 of the votes cast. While the juror renders a decision, the judge usually has the ultimate say in when to accept that decision and how to use it to determine a case or apply the decision. Sometimes judges can even overturn jury verdicts.

The business of having a trial by jury composed of peers especially in the US has not always worked appropriately. Some juries were not composed of peers, especially in the Southern US in trials that involved African American citizens. Jurors were for a time restricted to white males in many Southern states. Racial prejudice often ruled the day and it was hard for a black American to get a fair trial, especially if accused by a white person. There are still allegations of inequity in the justice system because true peers may not always be found for a defendant.

Some cultures find trial by jury a ridiculous concept. They cannot understand how laymen with no experience of the law could possibly render appropriate decisions. While many people in the world hold the right to a trial by jury as a basic right of citizenship, others feel that it is amateurish and inappropriate when dealing with something as serious as administration of the law.

Some allege injustice in the justice system when a defendant's peers cannot be found to serve on his or her jury.
Some allege injustice in the justice system when a defendant's peers cannot be found to serve on his or her jury.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


Sunshine31-Also, I want to say that sometimes the defendants file for bankruptcy so the victims can not collect any money.

In the Bernard Goetz case, he was acquitted of attempted murder because the jury felt that these men harassed him and he shot them in self defense. These men were serial criminals with a long rap sheet and Goetz was a previous victim of a mugging.

After he was only found guilty of possessing a firearm without a permit and sentenced to less than a year, the victim that was paralyzed as a result of Bernard Goetz shooting him filed a civil lawsuit against Goetz.

The jury awarded the victim 18 million dollars, but Goetz had filed for bankruptcy and the victim was unable to collect any money.


BrickBack-A civil trial by jury usually results when a criminal trial does not offer the victim of the case a sense of justice.

For example, the criminal lawyers in the OJ Simpson case really did an outstanding job in trying to minimize the overwhelming evidence that the prosecution had against him.

As a result of the not guilty verdict, the father of one of the victims, Mr. Goldman sought a civil trial and was actually awarded 33 million dollars.

It is really hard to collect this money because pensions are excluded as well as a personal residence. This is OJ Simpson’s primary source of income.


A criminal or civil trial by jury is a right of anyone accused of a crime. The standard of guilt is different in a criminal trial than it is in a civil trial.

In a criminal trial, there has to be a unanimous vote or verdict in order for the defendant to be found guilty. In a civil trial by jury in civil cases, the jury only has to be more than 50% in agreement in order to convict.

The reason for this is the fact that in a criminal trial defendant could be incarcerated, while in a civil case the penalties are financial.

In a civil trial by jury, the jury can award compensatory damages and punitive damages. Compensatory damages refer to medical bills, time lost from work, and any other way that the plaintiff was negatively impacted by the offense.

Punitive damages are an additional layer of compensation that the jury can award a plaintiff to punish the defendant.

While there are limits to compensatory damages and many states have a limit of $250,000 for most cases, there is no limit on punitive damages which might create a financial windfall for the plaintiff.

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