In some cases that would otherwise go before a jury, legal counsel instead recommends requesting a bench trial, in which the judge makes the final ruling. This typically occurs when either the plaintiffs or defendants do not believe they will otherwise receive a fair trial. To make this request, they must officially waive their right to a jury trial with the court.
There are limits to doing this, however, as was illustrated by a recent ruling from the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands. In the People of the Virgin Islands v. Velasquez(Case No. SX-2012-cr-063), the defendants requested a bench trial after arguing that too many of the prospective jurors had expressed bias that would prevent them from receiving a fair trial.
In a February opinion, the Superior Court denied the defendants’ waiver of their right to a jury trial on the grounds that the prosecution did not agree to it. In other words, both sides must consent before a bench trial is warranted.
Although this example is from a criminal case, bench trials can play a role in civil matters, as well. If both parties in a case agree to it, they can forego bringing in a jury and allow the judge to conduct all fact finding and issue the verdict afterward.
Let’s say you’re involved in a case in which an employee accuses your company of discrimination in the workplace. If both sides in the case agree to a bench trial, the judge would be responsible for establishing the legal standards for what constitutes workplace discrimination, and then make a decision based on the arguments both parties make.
In other situations, you may not have a choice between a jury or bench trial. This includes cases involving injunctions, in which one party seeks court action to stop an individual or organization from engaging in certain activities. Generally, if the plaintiff is not pursuing monetary damages, there will likely be a bench trial.
As with many legal issues, there is a lot of middle ground, and whether you wish to seek a jury trial or bench trial may depend on the circumstances of your specific case. If you have questions about this issue, be sure to consult a knowledgeable civil litigation attorney.
BoltNagi is a respected and well-established civil litigation law firm serving clients throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands.