When parties to a dispute come together before a court or tribunal to present information and evidence fore the purpose of allowing the court to make a decision on the dispute, it is considered to be a trial. In the U.S., a trial occurs in a formal judicial setting before a judge with the authority to adjudicate disputes and claims, and often times before a jury.

The goal of a civil trial is to obtain a legal resolution to a dispute between two or more individuals, such as loss related to an injury or property damage, or a breach of contract. The goal of a criminal trial is to determine whether the individual accused of a crime is guilty of that crime. To explore this concept, consider the following trial definition.

Definition of Trial


  1. An examination of the facts at issue in a legal matter before a judicial tribunal or court of law.
  2. Due process of law for the purpose of determining a person’s innocence or guilt.


1520-1530        Anglo-French from trier

Adversarial and Inquisitorial Systems of Trial

An adversarial legal system is a system of law in which an advocate represents the position of each party as the case is presented to an impartial individual (a judge), or group of people (a jury), who attempt to determine what is the truth. It is this adversarial trial system that sets the prosecution against the defense in criminal trials in the U.S., each attempting to convince the judge or jury that his position is the correct choice. The role of the judge in an adversarial trial is to act as an impartial referee, ensuring the trial process observes the rules of due process.

By contrast, an inquisitorial legal system finds the court actively involved in an investigation of the facts. An inquisitorial system is often used in such summary hearings as traffic court, civil trials, and administrative hearings. In an inquisitorial trial, the investigation is conducted by the prosecutor. The facts are then presented to an examining judge who decides whether the case should proceed to trial. In criminal law, this system is most commonly found in countries whose judicial systems originated in Roman or Napoleonic law.

An Adversarial Approach to Justice

In an adversarial system, it is presumed that the truth is more likely to be discovered in an open contest between the parties, as each presents evidence and opposing opinions to the court. In such a system, each side presents its own biased interpretation of the law, as it applies to the fact presented. Through a process of opposing arguments, and examination and cross-examination of witnesses, the jury will be exposed to tests of truthfulness, as well as the relevance of facts, and adequacy of each side’s evidence.

To ensure a fair trial, the accused individual is presumed innocent, with the burden to prove the case resting squarely on the prosecution. While the original intent behind the adversarial trial system in the U.S. was to ensure fairness, it has been argued that the desire to prevail outweighs the drive to find the truth. Other inequities may exist, in that parties who can afford to hire the best attorneys are deemed by some to have the greatest chance of success.

Differences Between Civil and Criminal Cases

In the American judicial system, cases are categorized as either criminal or civil. Criminal cases are offenses against the state resulting from actions considered to be harmful to society in general. Civil cases involve disputes between individuals and entities, often over responsibilities and legal duties they owe to one another. The primary differences between criminal and civil cases include:

Issue                 Criminal Case Civil Case
Which Party Files Prosecutor Wronged party
Standard of Proof Beyond a reasonable doubt Preponderance of the evidence
Punishment Potential for imprisonment or death, fines Monetary damages or specific performance
Right to an Attorney Guaranteed, appointed to defendant who cannot afford one Not guaranteed, must be hired privately
Right Against Self Incrimination Absolute – no defendant may be compelled to testify against himself All parties must answer questions posed by the judge or opposing attorney

Example of Criminal vs. Civil Case

John leaves the bar after an evening of partying and, while driving under the influence, hits another car running a red light. The driver of the other car is killed. John may be charged with a variety of serious crimes, including DUI, attempted murder, or manslaughter. In this criminal case, John is likely to be arrested, and the facts will be investigated by law enforcement and the District Attorney before going to trial. John is entitled to an attorney, and if he cannot afford to hire one, the court will appoint one to represent him at no cost.

During the criminal trial, the judge will act as referee, ensuring both the prosecutor and defense observe the rules of court and the rules of evidence. A jury will hear testimony, view evidence, and meet together to decide whether the prosecution has proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that John is guilty of the crimes for which he has been charged.

Whether found guilty or innocent in the criminal case, John may be subject to a civil lawsuit. The other driver’s family has the right to file a civil lawsuit against John for, among other things, causing the wrongful death of their family member. In a civil trial, the parties are responsible for discovering and providing their own facts, and each may hire an attorney, but neither party has a Constitutional right to an attorney, and so must pay for their services themselves. In this civil trial, the decedent’s family only needs to prove that John is liable for the death by a preponderance of the evidence. Because of this, it is not uncommon for individuals acquitted of a crime to be found liable for the same act in a civil court.

Difference Between a Bench Trial and a Jury Trial

The U.S. legal system offers two types of trial: the bench trial, and the jury trial. In most states, an individual charged with a crime that has a possible punishment of more than six months in jail is entitled to a jury trial. Even defendants entitled to a jury trial may request a bench trial, as this is sometimes beneficial to their specific case.

Jury Trial

A jury trial is held before a panel of 6 – 12 people who view the evidence, and hear the testimony, presented, before meeting together to decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. The judge’s role in a jury trial is to ensure the laws of evidence and rules of procedure are held to, and to instruct the jury about the laws pertaining to the case, and how they should consider those laws in relation to the evidence.

Bench Trial

A bench trial, sometimes referred to as a “court trial,” is held before only a judge, with no jury involved at all. The judge still rules on issues of evidence and testimony allowed in trial, and procedural issues, but he or she also views the evidence and hears testimony. The judge then decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. A bench trial provides a quicker resolution to a criminal case, making it beneficial to some defendants. Bench trials are often less formal than jury trials, and the defendant can be assured the judge understands any complex legal issues involved in the case that might not be understood by members of a jury.

The primary disadvantage to a bench trial is that there is only one person deciding the credibility of witness testimony and evidence presented, only one person deciding the guilt or innocence of the defendant.

The Acquittal and Civil Liability of O.J. Simpson

In one of the most renowned criminal trials in U.S. history, retired professional football star O.J. Simpson faced two counts of murder for the violent deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. Throughout the 11-month trial, the prosecution and defense presented their evidence and interpretations of the law, each attempting to sway the jury to their side. In the end, the prosecution was unable to eliminate doubt as to Simpson’s guilt, and he was acquitted in November 1994.

Several months later, the victims’ families filed a $40 million lawsuit in civil court. The acquittal in criminal court did not represent proof of Simpson’s innocence, but a lack of incontrovertible evidence of his guilt. The families were able to prove to the civil court, by a preponderance of evidence, that it was more likely than not that Simpson was liable for their deaths. The jury awarded the families $8.5 million in damages.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Acquittal – A judgment that a person is not guilty of the crime with which he has been charged.
  • Beyond a Reasonable Doubt – The standard of proof required in a criminal trial: that no other logical explanation exists, given the facts presented, that the accused committed the crime.
  • Decedent – A person who has died; a deceased person.
  • Jury – A group of people sworn to render a verdict in a trial, based on evidence presented.
  • Monetary Damages – Money ordered by the court to be paid to an individual or entity as compensation for injury or loss caused by the wrongful conduct of another party.
  • Preponderance of the Evidence – The belief by a jury or judge that evidence presented by one party in a civil lawsuit is more convincing, or believed to be more truthful, than that presented by the opposing party. In other words, it is more likely than not that such evidence is true.
  • Specific Performance – An equitable remedy in which the court compels a party to a contract to perform duties agreed to in the contract.