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Trial Law

Trial law is a judicial examination and determination of facts and legal issues arising between parties to a civil or criminal action.  In the United States, the trial is the primary method used to resolve legal disputes between parties that they have not been able to settle between themselves using less formal means.  A trial’s chief purpose is to reach as fair and impartial a resolution between the parties as possible–what most people typically refer to as “justice.”

In trial law, a trial seeks to uncover the truth of the matters at issue between the parties and to then apply applicable law to those matters.  The trial also supplies the final legal determination of the dispute between the parties.  There are two main types of trials:  civil trials and criminal trials.  Civil trials are those which resolve civil actions brought to enforce, redress, or protect private rights.  Generally speaking, all causes of action that are not criminal actions are by default civil actions.  Criminal trials, on the other hand, involve a person being charged with a crime.  The government then brings a criminal action against the accused person on behalf of its citizens to punish those found guilty of breaking criminal law.

Of course, what most people picture when they think of trial law is the jury trial, the cornerstone of the United States judicial system.  When the U.S. Supreme Court sets down its opinions that govern whether or not certain laws or constitutional, it bases these findings on the issues and disputes raised during or after jury trials.  The Adversary Method used to resolve disputes in the jury trial system pits both parties against each other as adversaries, with each party promoting its own version of the truth.  Pennsylvania lawyers present the best case possible on behalf of their clients and the jury, a group of citizens drawn from the community, then decides which facts in dispute are true.  A judge presides at the trial, determining and applying the law during the proceedings. Once the jury reaches a verdict, the judge enters a judgment that constitutes the decision of the court.  The parties must abide by the court’s judgment, although they will have the right to appeal in certain circumstances.

Not all trials are tried before juries.  Some cases can be tried before a judge instead.  This process is called a court trial or a bench trial.   This type of trial is, for the most part, identical to a jury trial–except the judge decides both the facts and the law applicable to the case.  Criminal defendants are always entitled to a trial by jury.  Additionally, most common-law civil claims are tried by jury.  Usually, though, actions created by statute may be tried only before the court.

In a trial, the term “party” means any individual, organization, or government that participates in the trial and holds an interest in the trial’s outcome.  The main parties in a lawsuit are the plaintiff and the defendant.  In civil trials, plaintiffs initiate the lawsuit and seek remedies from the court for private civil wrongs allegedly committed by the defendant or defendants.  There can be more than one plaintiff in a civil trial if they allege similar wrongs committed by a common defendant.  In criminal trials, the government serves as the plaintiff, with the individual accused of the crime serving as the defendant.

Parties in civil trials may be represented by Pennsylvania lawyers or represent themselves.  All parties have the fundamental right to be present at every critical stage of the proceedings, although that right is not absolute. Parties can choose not to attend the trial and be represented in court solely by Pennsylvania lawyers.  A party’s absence does not affect the court’s right to proceed with the civil trial, however.

In criminal trials, the government is represented by an attorney known as the prosecutor.  This attorney seeks to prove the guilt of the defendant.  While criminal defendants may represent themselves during trial, they are entitled to representation by counsel.  In situations where they cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one for them free of charge.  Many court decisions have upheld the determination that trying an accused without his presence at every critical stage of the trial violates his constitutional right to due process, although a defendant can waive this right and choose not to attend the trial or portions of the trial.

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