What is Trial Court?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 22 April 2020
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A trial court is a court in which an initial trial is held. These courts have original jurisdiction, acting as the first court in which a case is heard. If the outcome of the case in trial court is satisfactory, the case ends there. In the event that one of the parties wishes to appeal, the appeal must be taken to a higher level appellate court which has jurisdiction over trial courts. On appeal, the court considers the points of the appeal and decides whether to send the case back to trial, to uphold the outcome reached in trial court, or to overturn it.

Trial courts are also known as courts of first instance, reflecting the fact that they are the site where trials start out. Some have general jurisdiction, covering all civil and criminal cases within a given area. Others may have limited jurisdiction and are only qualified to hear certain matters. For example, a trial court might focus on small claims civil cases, cases in which the damages being requested are small.

In a bench trial, only a judge is present. The case is presented to the judge, who makes a determination of the facts before issuing a ruling on the law. Jury trials involve a sitting jury which decides matters of fact and a judge who makes determinations about the legal matters related to the case. People may be able to request a bench trial if they are eligible for a jury trial but would prefer to be heard by a judge alone.

These lower courts hear the facts related to the case as both sides put forward arguments. The rules of evidence must be followed when introducing supporting evidence into the courtroom and people must also comply with the rules of courtroom procedure. The rules in a trial court are rigid to reduce the risks of miscarriage of justice. For example, judges must recuse themselves from cases in which they have a personal interest. If these rules are not followed, there is a possibility that the case will be overturned on a technicality.

The length of a trial heard in trial court can vary. Sometimes a case is simple and occupies a single afternoon. In other instances, trials may drag on for weeks or months as both sides prepare for trial and then take their arguments into the court. When the potential for appeals is added to the process, it can take years to fully resolve a case.

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Post 2

@alwaysin - In the US, most criminal cases are subject to jury trials whereas most civil cases are conducted as bench trials. Usually one of the parties in a civil case can request a jury trial, but they have to pay a fee. Juvenile law cases (custody hearings, etc.) are almost always conducted as bench trials.

Post 1

Are certain kinds of cases heard by judges (like small claims) and others by juries (like murder cases)? I thought most cases were jury cases.

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