In deciding difficult disputes, trial by jury and by bench continues to play a significant role in upholding public confidence and trust in the courts and in the civil justice system. The right to a jury trial is guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Due to non-trial dispositions such as summary judgments and settlements, studies in recent years confirmed that the rate of civil jury trials has gradually declined. As such, over the past years, the investigators, legal community, and the American public in general have become increasingly interested in the jury system. A bench trial, on the other hand, is the legal term for a civil or criminal trial before a judge instead of a jury. In bench trial, the judge exclusively decides the entire disputed issues of facts and resolves questions of law in a case. In most legal cases, however, the defendant is protected against a compulsory bench trial and has the right to a jury trial.
In general, jury trials are governed by the same rules as bench trials, given that their procedural methods and rules of evidence are equally the same. Yet when a party demands for jury trial, the court requires it to be in writing, and if no demand is made by either party within the time or in the manner required by the court, the jury is waved. Therefore, the issue will be tried in regular court and by a judge.
In South Carolina, the rules when the right to a jury trial is waived or invoked are specified in case law and court rules. Moreover, litigants seeking to resolve their cases through a process apart from the average civil trial involving judges could make use of the summary jury trial.
Low-dollar tort cases, for instance, are frequently resolved through summary jury trials. Such cases are generally low in relation to the costs of litigating the cases all the way through the traditional legal systems (Croley, 2008, p. 1587). Since the process is cheap and fast as compared to ordinary litigation, jury trial enjoys the strong support not only from the plaintiff’s legal representatives but as well to the local defense bar. However, there is no right to a jury trial in civil cases where the legal action does not involve a claim for money.
Bench trial proceedings are normally less time consuming, less formal, and less complicated than jury trials (Criminal Law Lawyers Source, 2009). A bench trial may be advantageous when the presentation of facts may be detrimental if offered to a jury, or when the defendant asks for a reduction of charges instead of a not guilty judgment. Moreover, bench trial is appropriate when the facts of the case require delicate legal merits that a jury may disregard or not appreciate. This circumstance takes place when the legal question involved in the civil case is founded on technical arguments necessitating the type of legal characteristics that only a judge is expected to appreciate. Nevertheless, if the defendant is a minor, the right to a jury trial may not be appropriate and, accordingly, the defendant will be put through a mandatory trial by bench (Imhoff, & Rosenberg, 2006).
In South Carolina, the basic outline of trials is similar, and the decision maker in a trial can either be a jury or a judge. However, in civil cases, there are advantages and disadvantages to both bench and jury trial proceedings. Defendants, as a rule, have the legal right to choose between a bench or jury trial. Yet some defendants are unaware that there is the option of not insisting on the right to a jury and having a trial only before a judge. Nevertheless, in practice, only few individuals utilize the entire judicial process, as most civil cases are resolved through amicable settlements without resort to full-blown proceedings.
Imhoff, V. & Rosenberg, A. (2006, June 12). Criminal Procedure: Jury Trial vs. Bench Trial. Imhoff & Associates. Retrieved March 9, 2009, from http://www.criminalattorney.com/pages/firm_articles_bench_trial.htm
Criminal Law Lawyers Source. (2009). Bench Trial. Retrieved March 9, 2009, from http://www.criminal-law-lawyer-source.com/terms/bench-trial.html
Croley, S. (2008). Summary Jury Trials in Charleston County, South Carolina. Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review. Retrieved March 9, 2009, from http://llr.lls.edu/docs/41-4croley.pdf