Jury trial rate shrinking in Virginia and across country

Published: Aug. 15, 2011 at 5:16 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 15, 2011 at 9:22 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Is your right to a trial by a jury of your peers slipping away? The number of trials by jury is going down across the country and here in Virginia more cases are being decided out of court or by a judge instead.

While the volume of both civil and criminal cases are increasing, the percentage of cases decided by a jury is dropping. More people are choosing to go the route of out-of-court settlements, to have a judge decide the case, or plea bargain.

One of the leading organizations that researches this very issue is right here in Williamsburg, the National Center for State Courts.

"People are somewhat adverse to the risk of the uncertainty of a trial. If you're controlling your own case in a settlement proceeding, you have some control over it," said NCSC's Executive Vice President and General Counsel Robert Baldwin.

Baldwin says they found jury trials dropping in 15 states they studied. Data from the Virginia Supreme Court shows jury trials in Circuit Court civil cases went from 1.5% in 1991 to 0.6% in 2010. Jury trials in Circuit Court criminal cases went from 3.9% in 1991 to 1.6% in last year.

"It's due to, number one, the cost of jury trials. They are very expensive for both sides, primarily due to experts," said trial attorney Stephanie Grana with the firm Cantor, Stoneburner, Ford, Grana, Buckner.

Some legal experts worry the decreasing number of jury trials is eroding public participation in the court system. The use of citizen jurors was designed to keep court open and ensure government-paid judges weren't making all the decisions.

"You lose the public accountability. Sometimes when someone has committed a wrong, even on the civil side, a corporation, a government, whomever, and they're brought to task in a public trial, that has a beneficial effect," said Baldwin.

But trial lawyer Stephanie Grana says out-of-court arbitration and mediation give both parties more control over the outcome. And ironically, despite the decreasing rate of jury trials, the state's judge vacancies are lengthening the time it takes for attorneys to get trial dates.

"If I file a case tomorrow, I don't actually get into a courtroom for a year, year-and-half. So if my client wants resolution, sometimes a settlement would be the more appropriate way to go," Grana said.

Experts seem to agree that jury trials are necessary for democracy, but perhaps need to be made more affordable and accessible to those who need them.

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