A pretrial hearing is a meeting between parties to a case that happens prior to the beginning of a trial. The parties involved may include the plaintiff and their attorney, the defendant and their attorney, and the judge or magistrate.
At times, other parties may be included, as well. Pretrial hearings help to clear up any issues and administrative details that can be handled prior to trial, which then frees the parties up to focus on the real legal issues of the case without the distractions.
As such, they benefit all parties involved. Pretrial hearings may be used in both criminal and civil cases. They are often required by the court, although either party to the case may request that a pretrial hearing be set.
Yes, for the most part, these terms can be used interchangeably. Although some state laws may define these terms differently, common knowledge is that they are used for the same purpose. So even though may note a distinction, for our purposes in this article, “pretrial conference” and “pretrial hearing” refer to the same matter.
A pretrial hearing also differs from a preliminary hearing, which is a type of hearing held prior to a pretrial hearing in a criminal felony case, to determine whether there is adequate evidence to charge the accused with the crime.
Pretrial hearings are held, as the name indicates, before trial. Before trial begins, the judge or magistrate for the case will meet with attorneys from both sides of the case to handle any pretrial matters. Pretrial motions may be made, settlement offers may be made, and the parties may discuss evidentiary matters.
Essentially, a pretrial hearing or conference is any meeting held prior to trial, with the parties described above, to handle matters that need to be settled before proceeding to trial. More than one may be held, as necessary, to resolve any legal issues, or complaints between the parties.
A pretrial hearing can fulfill many different purposes. For instance:
- It helps resolve matters that allow the trial itself to be conducted more efficiently;
- It allows the parties to exchange information which helps them all to be better prepared for trial, if the matter proceeds to trial;
- In some cases, it allows the parties to reach a settlement, so as to avoid the time and expense of a trial; and
- It helps judges get a handle on the issues and parties to the case, and establish authority.
Various issues are decided and ruled upon at pretrial hearings. These may include:
- A judge may establish some basic rules for the case proceedings;
- A judge will typically set a schedule for the trial, and for other pretrial matters;
- The parties may argue other what evidence should and should not be included at trial;
- The parties may argue over whether certain witnesses should be used at trial;
- Parties may request a change of venue (location of court where trial is held);
- Either party’s attorney may make motions for dismissal or summary judgment, asking the judge to dismiss the matter entirely or rule on points of law favorable to their client;
- The issues to be decided at trial may be identified and narrow at pretrial hearing; and
- The parties may attempt to settle the matter without going to trial (in a civil case) or work out a plea bargain (for a criminal case).
The types of issues may vary somewhat, depending on whether the case is civil or criminal. During a criminal matter, the issues decided upon do not resolve the issue of the defendant’s guilt or innocence. However, the matters listed above could pertain to either civil or criminal cases.
Judges usually rule right away on matters that are brought up during a pretrial conference. This means that they will rule immediately on pretrial motions. In some cases, if more time is needed, the judge may set a further pretrial conference to resolve a particular pretrial issue. It is possible that some issues raised during a pretrial hearing will not be resolved until the trial itself.
Yes, although it is possible to represent yourself, it is to your advantage to hire an attorney appropriate to the subject matter of your case. Pretrial hearings involve the discussion of complex legal matters which an attorney will be familiar with, so they will be able to guide you throughout the proceedings and argue on your behalf.
They can also represent you during trial, if the matter proceeds to trial. Having someone experienced with the laws of your jurisdiction, and with the court systems, can help you get a better outcome to your legal matter than you would be able to achieve on your own. This is important in a civil matter, and is extremely important if you are facing criminal charges.