A summary trial is a form of alternate dispute resolution that began to garner interest and support in the United States in the late 20th century. It’s usually conducted like a regular trial, but has a couple of significant differences, such as a strict one-day time limit and often, a non-binding verdict. Summary trials take place in regular courtrooms, are presided over by judges, and seat a jury selected from the regular jury pool, which renders a verdict at the trial’s conclusion. The other distinction that sets summary trials apart is that they usually have no witnesses, only affidavits and arguments.
The parties in a lawsuit sometimes have unrealistic ideas about the strength of their cases and the probable outcomes of jury trials. They may work with focus groups and mock jury panels while preparing their cases, but these frequently aren’t representative of the actual jury pool. Summary trials, therefore, are intended to give the parties an idea of how a real jury would decide a case. They’re useful tools when there’s no substantial disagreement as to the facts in a case, and the parties are far apart only with respect to proposed resolution. Often ordered by the judge in cases where pre-trial negotiations have broken down, they’ve become so successful in leading to settlements that in many cases the parties themselves will petition the court for a summary trial.
The main point of a summary trial is to show the parties what an actual jury is likely to decide, and help them to settle without going to trial. The financial savings resulting from a pre-trial settlement are substantial for all concerned. Neither side will incur the costs of eyewitnesses, expert witnesses, or exhibit preparation. The parties also save days or even weeks of their attorneys’ fees for courtroom time. Taxpayers also save substantially, because the costs of conducting trials are considerable.
Although they’re a cheaper alternative to a full-blown trial, summary trials are neither cheap nor simple. The parties must agree on a number of issues, such as the trial's format and how exhibits will be presented to the jury. Affidavits, which comprise much of the information presented, must be carefully prepared. Attorneys must be at the top of their games because they’ll have to argue their cases to the jury within strict time constraints. The court must conduct the trial in all respects like an actual trial, within the rules and guidelines agreed to by the parties.
The juries in summary trials, usually consisting of six jurors, generally aren’t told that their verdicts will not be binding. Each side usually prepares an exhibit binder for each juror on the panel, to save the time lost in a regular trial when jurors hand exhibits back and forth. At the trial’s conclusion, jurors are encouraged to discuss their verdict with the parties.
While summary trials can provide a great benefit to the system, they have their drawbacks. Some parties don’t want to disclose their arguments before an actual trial, for example. In addition, one party could “set up” the other party by withholding critical evidence or arguments, only to present these later in a full trial. This isn’t a frequent occurrence, however.
Summary trials shouldn’t be considered a panacea for all the ills of the civil court system, or even for all cases where there's agreement over the essential facts. Most judges won’t approve summary trials if there’s not clear evidence that they’ll result in significant cost savings. Thus, even if there’s significant disagreement between the parties as to the proposed resolution of a dispute, if the trial seems likely to last only a day or two, a summary trial likely won’t be conducted.
Jurisdictions outside the United States have varying definitions of summary trials. In most cases, they’re similar to the American system, but the results are usually binding. Often a summary trial is also held without a jury — instead, affidavits of fact are presented to the judge, who will either render a judgment or order a full trial if the evidence presented is inadequate.