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A bench trial is a trial by judge as opposed to a trial by jury. The term is chiefly used in common law jurisdictions which use both trials by a judge and by a jury, so as to distinguish as to the type of trial. Many legal systems (Roman, Islamic) use bench trials for most or all cases or for certain types of cases.
Many countries that follow common law have provisions for bench trials.
England and Wales
The majority of civil trials that take place in England and Wales do not feature a jury and are heard by a judge sitting alone. The Crown Court is the only court to use juries as a matter of course. Criminal trials for indictable offences are almost always conducted at the Crown Court with a jury in session, as are less serious triable either way offences if the magistrates or defendant decide upon a Crown Court trial.
Turks and Caicos
One of the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry 2008-2009 was that provisions be made for criminal trials without juries, following the Anglo-Welsh precedent. Other examples cited included the United States, the Commonwealth, including India and Canada, the British Overseas Territories of the Falkland Islands and St. Helena, and the Netherlands.
In U.S. law, for most criminal cases, trial by jury is usually a matter of course and cannot be waived without certain requirements. Under the rules of Federal Criminal Procedure: If a defendant is entitled to a jury trial, the trial must be by jury unless: (1) the defendant waives a jury trial in writing; (2) the government consents; and (3) the court approves. See Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure 23(a).
With bench trials, the judge plays the role of the jury as finder of fact, in addition to making conclusions of law. In some bench trials, both sides have already stipulated to all the facts in the case (such as civil disobedience cases designed to test the constitutionality of a law). These are usually faster than jury trials due to the fewer number of formalities required. For example, there is no jury selection phase, no need for sequestration and no need for jury instructions.
A bench trial has some distinctive characteristics, but it is basically the same as a jury trial without the jury. For example, the rules of evidence and methods of objection are the same in a bench trial as in a jury trial. Bench trials, however, are frequently more informal than jury trials. It is often less necessary to protect the record with objections, and sometimes evidence is accepted de bene, or provisionally, subject to the possibility of being struck in the future.
Some judicial proceedings, such as probate, family law or juvenile matters, do not usually utilize juries. In such courts, judges routinely adjudicate both matters of fact and law.
In most countries with "Roman law" or civil law, there is no "jury" in the English sense, and trials are necessarily bench trials. However, in more complicated cases, Lay Judges can be called. These are not randomly selected like juries; they are volunteers, and vote as judges.
- Black, Henry Campbell (1990). Black's Law Dictionary, 6th ed. St. Paul, MN.: West Publishing. p. 156. ISBN 0-314-76271-X.
- Interim Report of the Commissioner the Right Honourable Sir Robin Auld