Preparing for a Jury Trial

What you need to know to represent yourself before a jury.

Representing yourself at a jury trial is a bit more cumbersome than at a trial in front of the judge alone. For one, you have to follow procedural requirements or lose your right to a jury trial, for another, selecting the jury is not easy.

Procedural Requirements

First, you or the other party has to make a jury trial request. Jury requests must usually be made in writing well in advance of trial and even before a trial date is set. If you miss the request deadline, you give up the right to a jury trial.

If you request a jury trial, you will have to post jury fees. People selected as jurors receive a small amount of money for each day they serve, and in most court systems, whoever requests a jury usually has to pay a deposit of one day's jury fees -- often $50 to $150 -- before trial.

Selecting the Jury

If you're representing yourself in a jury trial, you'll be asked to help select the jury before the trial starts. The exact procedures for selecting a jury vary from one court system to another, but there are substantial similarities in all courts.

On the day your case goes to trial, a group of prospective jurors is selected at random. If the jury will consist of the traditional 12 jurors, about 30 prospective jurors will be called. If the jury will consist of only six or eight jurors, the jury pool is likely to be smaller.

The pool of prospective jurors is brought into the courtroom, and a smaller group is chosen at random and seated in the jury box. The judge then asks them questions. The goal of this questioning process, which lawyers refer to by the French term, voir dire, is to select a fair and impartial jury.

Voir Dire

Initially, jurors are usually questioned by the judge about their backgrounds, such as their marital status, occupations, and previous jury service. Then either the judge or you and your adversary will question them further, searching for biases that might prevent them from being fair and impartial. For example, if you're suing an attorney for malpractice, it makes sense to question the prospective jurors as to their experiences with, or biases for or against, attorneys.

Traditionally, lawyers did almost all of the voir dire questioning. However, many judges have come to believe that lawyers take up too much time and try to persuade jurors of the merits of their cases rather than simply select a group of impartial jurors. As a result, today many judges conduct most or all of the voir dire questioning.

Juror Challenges

After the panel of jurors has been questioned, you and the other party are allowed to excuse prospective jurors in a process called challenging jurors. If the judge allows the challenge, the challenged juror will be sent back to the jury room, and a new prospective juror will be selected at random from the original jury pool and questioned.

The question-and-challenge process continues until both sides accept the same group of jurors, or until both sides have challenged as many prospective jurors as they are allowed by local court rules. At that point the court clerk officially swears in the jury, and the trial -- mercifully -- begins.

There are two kinds of juror challenges. In a challenge for cause, you ask a judge to excuse a prospective juror on the ground that something in that person's background or her answers to questions indicate that the person is not fair and impartial. You and your adversary are allowed an unlimited number of challenges for cause because you are both entitled to jurors who are fair.

The second kind of challenge, a peremptory challenge, is one that you can exercise for any reason whatsoever (unless your state or federal district court has limited peremptory challenges to those that are not based on race, ethnicity, or sex). Unlike a challenge for cause, you don't have to explain or justify your challenge to the judge. For example, perhaps you want to excuse Juror Number 8 because she has an occupation that suggests to you that she will not give you a fair shot, or because she smiled at your adversary but not at you. You get only a few peremptory challenges though. The number of peremptory challenges allowed varies from one court system to another, but is usually restricted to four or six.

Opting Out of Voir Dire

You don't have to play the voir dire game. You can leave it to the judge to ask the questions. At least one authority, California Superior Court Judge Rod Duncan, suggests that a pro per litigant may be better off simply standing up and saying, "These look like good and honest people to me, and I trust them to apply the law fairly. No questions." Particularly if your adversary is represented by counsel, the jurors may empathize with your "little guy v. big guy" approach.

Whether you're a plaintiff or a defendant, Nolo's Represent Yourself in Court: How to Prepare & Try a Winning Case, by Sara Berman and Paul Bergman, will help you confidently handle your civil lawsuit.

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