Types of Trials & Court Procedure in the US

By Katherine at Legal Language
Posted on 04/09/2010
In Legal Resources

It’s a fact that the United States has one of the most complicated legal systems in the world, encompassing many different types of trials. Thousands of Americans find themselves in courtrooms every year regarding everything from parking violations to much larger criminal offenses.

We’ve compiled a list of the basic types of trials in the US as well as what to expect if you must appear in court.

Types of Trials in the US

Types of trials can are generally divided by the dispute of the issue at hand. The two major types of trials in the US are civil trials and criminal trials.

Civil trials are held to settle disagreements between two parties — usually individuals or businesses. These are non-criminal disputes, such as divorce proceedings, disagreements between landlords and tenants, and other lawsuits and civil claims.

Criminal trials are held when a person is accused of a felony or misdemeanor criminal offense. The accused party is entitled to a trial by a jury of his or her peers.

Other types of trials include juvenile cases, which is a trial that involves a child under the age of 17. Types of trials that could be considered juvenile cases include child protective hearings, juvenile delinquency hearings and traffic hearings.

Traffic cases are another type of trial — the most common in the United States! A traffic cases is any hearing related to a traffic violation.

US Court Procedure

Hopefully you won’t find yourself in court anytime soon for any reason. But if it happens, here’s a basic idea of what to expect:

Jury Selection

Jurors are selected for a trial after the judge and attorneys question prospective jurors to find out if they might have a personal interest in the trial, or a prejudice that may influence their decision.

Opening Statements

Each side begins the trial by summing up the evidence they will present to the jury during the trial. Opening statements are not considered to be evidence submission; they are simply the expectations of what each side hopes to prove throughout the trial.

Presentation of Evidence and Testimony of Witnesses

The trial begins with the plaintiff or prosecution presenting their case. When a witness is called to testify, the side that called the witness first asks questions. The opposing side then has an opportunity to ask the witness questions in a cross-examination.

When each side has presented all their evidence and asked all the necessary questions, they rest their case.

Closing Arguments

The attorneys summarize the evidence that was presented throughout the trial and try to persuade the jury to side with the client they are representing.

Presentation of Jury Instructions

The judge defines all issues the jurors must decide on and informs them of the laws and instruction pertaining their specific trial. Jurors are sworn to decide the outcome of trials based on how the laws are, not on how they would like the laws to be.


The jury retires to a deliberation room to consider the trial and reach a verdict. Most states require that a 12-person jury find the trial in favor unanimously for either the plaintiff or defendant.


A judge can declare a mistrial — then hold a retrial — for several reasons:

  • Improperly admitted evidence.
  • The court concluded that it lacks jurisdiction over the case.
  • Disqualification of a juror.
  • Misconduct by a juror or another party involved with the trial.
  • A hung jury (a jury that cannot reach a unanimous verdict).

The US is one of the most litigious countries in the world. Hopefully you won’t ever have to spend too much time in a courtroom, but if you do, it’s best to find an attorney and be prepared for whatever type of trial you’re a part of.

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