What is the difference between a jury trial and a bench trial in Massachusetts?

Articles XII and XV of the Massachusetts Constitution guarantee the right to a trial by jury, but the choice of whether to exercise that right is a strategic decision that often depends upon the facts and circumstances of a case. A case where the judge serves as fact-finder is referred to as a bench trial or a jury-waived trial. When choosing between a jury trial and a bench trial, lawyers and their clients must first evaluate factors like the strength and complexity of the legal claims and defenses, the makeup of the parties, and the location of the trial. The identity of the trial judge may also be a consideration for a party deciding whether to proceed with a jury trial or a bench trial.

In Massachusetts, a jury trial in the district court is comprised of six people. With the addition of alternate jurors who listen to the evidence but do not ultimately weigh in on the verdict, seven or eight people may be selected to serve on a district court jury. A superior court jury is made up of twelve individuals who decide the case, but with alternates the total number of jurors may be as many as sixteen. Certain types of cases do not provide the right to a trial by jury, like criminal cases where the maximum penalty does not include jail time but only a (usually small) fine, or certain civil cases such as divorce, child custody cases, or matters heard in the Land Court.

A plaintiff with an emotionally charged case or compelling loss may opt to select a jury trial over a bench trial because juries tend to sympathize with a plaintiff more than a judge, and because juries typically grant plaintiffs larger monetary awards than judges do. However, a plaintiff and counsel may decide that a case with complex legal or factual issues may fair better before one fact-finder instead of twelve, and therefore chose a bench trial. In terms of speed, a bench trial is generally more expedited than a jury trial.

Whether to waive a jury is a careful decision that should be made by experienced litigation counsel after a thorough evaluation of a case. To read more about Fitch Law Partners LLP‘s business litigation practice, please click here.


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