What is a trial?

A trial court (or court of first instance) is the court in which most civil or criminal cases begin. Not all cases are heard in trial courts; some cases may begin in inferior limited jurisdiction bodies such as the jurisdiction of an administrative body that has been created by statute to make some kind of binding determination under the law. There also may be simplified procedural practices that may apply, similar to arbitration.

In the trial court, evidence is taken and determinations are made (called findings of fact) based on the evidence presented in court, which follow the applicable procedural law’s rules of evidence of the court. The court also makes findings of law based upon that applicable law. Findings of fact are determined by the trier of fact (judge or jury) and the findings of law are always determined by the judge or judges. In most common law jurisdictions, the trial court often sits with a jury and one judge; though some cases may be designated “bench trials” — either by statute, custom, or by agreement of the parties —in which the judge makes both fact and law determinations.

A trial court is distinguishable from an appellate court, which reviews cases that have already been heard in the trial court. In appellate review, the record of the trial court must be certified by that court’s clerk and transmitted to the appellate body. Most appellate courts do not have the authority to hear testimony or take evidence, but must rely upon the record of the below court. Most trial courts are courts of record. The trial court is the court where the record of the presentation of evidence is created and must be maintained or transmitted to the appellate court.

In the U.S., the United States District Court is the sole trial court of general jurisdiction in the federal judicial system. State court systems refer to their trial courts by a variety of names, including “District Court”, “Circuit Court”, “”Superior Court”, and (in California) “Supreme Court”.

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