Overview Of A Trial
Learn about trials, including how they get scheduled, how the parties present their evidence on the big day, and the “standard of proof” the judge or jury will apply to the evidence presented.
A “trial” is one of the main methods used in the justice system to resolve a party’s legal claims. At trial, the parties to a case present evidence (witness testimony, documents, photographs, and the like) to a “fact finder” (the judge or a jury). The fact finder then decides what version of the facts to believe, whether those facts show a violation of a party’s legal rights, and whether the party is entitled to recover money because of that violation.
Entire books have been written about trials. These books have detailed discussions about such things as trial strategy, trial procedure, examination and cross-examination of witnesses at trial, introducing and objecting to evidence at trial, and the like. Such in-depth discussion is well beyond this website’s scope.
Below you will find some general information about how trial dates are set and the general order that evidence is presented at trial. But if you seriously intend to represent yourself at trial, go to your local law library and ask the librarian for assistance finding simplified guidebooks and instructional videos on trials, evidence, and witness examination. Better yet, hire a lawyer to represent you!
For library location and contact information, click to visit Law Libraries. For information about hiring a lawyer, click to visit Lawyers and Legal Help. For some general tips about appearing in court, click to visit Going to Court.
Q&A - Trials
How does a case get set for a trial date?
- If your case is in the district court:
The judge will issue a trial setting order that states the trial date. (EDCR 2.60(a).) This happens after the parties file their joint case conference report and the Discovery Commissioner issues the case scheduling order.
More than one case might be scheduled (or “stacked”) to go to trial on the same date. Most of those cases will resolve prior to the trial date. The remaining cases will go to trial on that date, starting with the oldest case first. The judge will conduct as many trials as she can during the time she has set aside on her calendar. If any cases remain, they are bumped to the next “stacked” trial date.
If the parties want to expedite their trial date and eliminate the possibility of getting bumped to the next “stack,” they can agree to place the case into the “short trial program.” For more information about the program, click to visit the Short Trial Forms Library.
If your case is in the district court’s arbitration program, the arbitrator assigned to the case will set the date for the arbitration. For more information about arbitration, visit the ADR Commissioner website.
- If your case is in the justice court:
In the justice court, you must file a “request for trial setting” to get a trial date. The court will schedule a trial setting conference. At the conference, the judge will set the trial date after consulting with the parties.
What is the difference between a bench trial and a jury trial?
In a jury trial, a jury makes the final decision in the case after hearing all the evidence presented by the parties. The judge is present to control the presentation of evidence, decide any legal issues that might arise, instruct the jury on their role, and the like. But the jury is the “fact finder” who decides which party’s version of the facts to believe and who ultimately wins or loses.
In a bench trial, the judge makes the final decision in the case after hearing the evidence. The judge not only decides the legal issues in the case, but is also the “fact finder” who decides who to believe and who ultimately wins or loses.
FYI! Jury trials are more complicated than bench trials. An in-depth discussion of jury trials is beyond this website’s scope. To learn how to request or conduct a jury trial, visit your local law library. There’s a good discussion on trials and jury trials in the Nevada Civil Practice Manual, but the librarian will be able to point you to other materials as well. For library location and contact information, click to visit Law Libraries.
How do the parties present their evidence at the trial?
Generally, the parties present their evidence at a trial in the following order:
- Each party makes an opening statement.
At the start of a trial, each party can make an opening statement giving a brief outline of the evidence that will be presented. The plaintiff goes first followed by the defendant.
In a bench trial, the judge may not want opening statements.
- Plaintiff presents her case.
The plaintiff has the burden at trial to prove her case, so she presents her evidence first. The most common type of evidence presented is the testimony of witnesses. But plaintiff could also introduce things like photographs, videos, or tangible objects; discovery acquired during the case; pleadings filed in the case; and the like.
Witnesses at trial sit on the witness stand by the judge and take an oath to testify truthfully.
The plaintiff conducts a “direct examination” of each witness by asking them questions. The witness answers the questions and tells the judge or jury what they saw, experienced, or know.
Immediately after plaintiff’s direct examination, the defendant can “cross-examine” the witness who just testified. Cross-examination is usually used to poke holes in the witness’s testimony or discredit the witness. This is done by asking the witness “leading” questions (meaning questions designed to suggest the answer or lead the witness to the answer). Normally cross-examination is limited to issues addressed on direct examination.
Immediately after defendant cross-examines the witness, the plaintiff can do a redirect examination to allow the witness to explain any inconsistencies or refocus the testimony. The scope of redirect examination is usually limited to issues raised on cross-examination.
The defendant may then be able to do a recross-examination of the witness if the judge allows it.
- Defendant presents his case.
After the plaintiff has presented all her evidence, it is the defendant’s turn. The defendant presents his case in much the same way as the plaintiff did, described above.
- Both parties make a closing argument.
After all the evidence has been presented, each side makes a closing argument to try to persuade the judge or jury to view the evidence in a certain way reach the conclusion that party wants them to reach.
Because the plaintiff usually has the burden to prove the case, the plaintiff makes her closing argument first, then defendant makes his, and then plaintiff gets the last word.
The scope of closing argument is limited to the issues and evidence that were presented at trial.
In a bench trial, the judge may not want closing arguments.
- The judge or the jury makes a decision.
In a bench trial, the judge might announce her decision from the bench and later issue a written decision. But more often the judge will simply take the case under advisement at the close of trial and then prepare and issue her written decision.
In a jury trial, the jury will return a verdict after the jurors have deliberated and reached a decision.
What is the “standard of proof” in a civil case?
In most civil cases, the judge or jury has to make a decision about which side wins based on a standard called "preponderance of the evidence." This means that the winner's side of the story is more probably true than not true. It does not mean that one side brought in more evidence than the other side. It means that one side's evidence was more convincing than the other's.
In some cases, the standard for reaching a decision is "clear and convincing evidence." This means that the winner needs to prove that his version of the facts is highly likely. It is an intermediate degree of proof, more than "preponderance of the evidence" but less than the certainty required to prove an issue "beyond a reasonable doubt" (the standard in criminal cases).