Bench Trial Advantages
There are certain tactical advantages to having a case heard by a judge in a bench trial rather than by a jury. Typically, bench trials are less time-consuming as well as less complicated than jury trials. Bench trials are less formal, and often the attorneys for both sides are able to agree in advance to most or perhaps all of the pertinent facts. In that regard, the judge is presented with a stipulation of facts in lieu of listening to witness testimony and reviewing documentary evidence in order to discern the facts of the case. Given that bench trials are less time-consuming than jury trials, they are also less costly. Selecting a bench trial over a jury trial almost always saves money on legal fees. Bench trials are often preferred in cases that present complicated factual scenarios or subtle legal distinctions.
However, bench trials are not always more advantageous than jury trials. Because the judge sits in place of the jury, there is no need for jury instructions in a bench trial. Jury instructions are presented to the judge by the attorneys on both sides of a case, and the judge must ultimately decide which instructions are proper in light of the admissible evidence. In that regard, jury instructions provide grounds for appeal as the appellate attorney can argue that the judge committed reversible error with the jury instructions. Because jury instructions are unnecessary in bench trials, the losing party has fewer grounds of error to assert on appeal.
Finally, cases with compelling facts are sometimes better candidates for jury trials. Juries may be more likely to award higher damages in civil cases with compelling facts. Similarly, a jury may be more sympathetic than a judge in criminal cases and accordingly may be more likely to render a verdict for a lesser offense.
The advantages and disadvantages of selecting a bench trial over a jury trial are complex and must be decided on a case-by-case basis. Selecting between a jury trial and a bench trial is a complicated decision and one that carries significant legal and financial consequences.