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Jury Trials: Representing Yourself

A jury trial is a proceeding where the jury, which is comprised of citizens in the community, determines the verdict in a case. When you represent yourself, jury trials can add a level of difficulty and formality to the case that is not typically present in a case presided over by a judge. Every jurisdiction has different rules, but gaining an understanding of the basic procedures in jury trials will help eliminate some of the mystery.

What Cases are Eligible for Jury Trial

Jury trials are not available in every case. Trials involving a child custody issue or a request for injunctive relief, for example, are ineligible for a jury trial. In general, most jurisdictions allow jury trials in a variety of civil cases involving monetary damages, including personal injury, malpractice, or breach of contract claims.

Requesting a Jury Trial

A judge will preside over a case unless one of the litigants requests a jury trial. To exercise this right, a litigant must:

  • Make a request: A written request for a jury trial must be made by the deadline set by the rules of the presiding court.
  • Pay the fee: The litigant that requests a jury trial must pay the deposit, usually an amount equivalent to the jury fees for one day. Failure to pay the fee on time will eliminate the right to a jury trial.

The failure to make a request for a jury trial within the specified time will waive this right.

Jury Selection

Before a jury trial begins, the litigants must select the jury. The court will choose prospective jurors randomly from a pool. The number of prospective jurors chosen will depend on the number needed for trial. For example, a traditional jury consisting of 12 jurors will typically result in the selection of 30 potential jurors. A small group of prospective jurors will be brought into the courtroom for questioning.

Questioning the Jurors: Voir Dire

The process for selecting a fair and impartial jury begins with questioning. Voir dire is the French term that describes this process. The purpose of questioning is to assess whether any jurors have biases that may affect their ability to serve as a fair arbiter in the case. Oftentimes, lawyers also use the voir dire process to help assess personalities and viewpoints of potential jurors.

The judge begins questioning the jurors about background issues, such as marital status, occupation, and previous experience serving on a jury. The lawyers, a self-represented litigant, or the judge may ask more in depth questions to determine whether there is a presence of bias against a party or the issue involved in the case. The parties or the judge, for instance, may ask whether the jurors drink alcohol if the case concerns drunk driving.

In recent years, the voir dire process in jury trials has undergone changes in order to prevent the presentation of persuasive information and to reduce the amount of time spent on questioning. While some judges still permit the parties to ask prospective jurors questions, others have eliminated or limited the way the parties may ask questions. Some judges have abolished questions from the lawyers or self-represented litigants altogether, while other judges allow a limited time for questions or allow the parties to submit written questions for the judge to ask.

Challenging Jurors

Litigants have the right to challenge jurors after questioning concludes in jury trials. This means that either party can request the dismissal of a prospective juror. The judge will excuse the dismissed juror and select a new juror randomly from the pool. The new juror will undergo questioning and either side may request the dismissal of the juror. Once both sides accept the remaining jurors, the selection process ends and trial begins.

The parties may make two different types of challenges:

  • Challenges for cause: A party may request the judge dismiss a juror based on a reason that indicates their inability to be fair or impartial. Typical reasons for challenges for cause include personal background, acquaintance with a litigant or a lawyer in the case, or an answer during questioning that indicates bias. Because the parties have a right to a fair trial, both can make an unlimited number of challenges for cause. The judge, however, makes the final decision on whether to dismiss the juror for the cause stated.
  • Peremptory challenges: Either party can request the judge dismiss a juror for any reason. While it is unnecessary to explain the reason for the request, each side only receives a few peremptory challenges. The number depends on how many the rules of the court allow.
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