A pretrial hearing is just that-a hearing or conference that occurs before a judicial trial takes place. Here are a number of facts about pretrial hearings and what transpires at them.
What it isn't
A pretrial hearing should not be mistaken for a preliminary hearing. Though both are court proceedings and happen before a trial takes place, they are two different things.
In a nutshell, a preliminary hearing happens in a felony court case. Prosecutors offer up just enough evidence (or so they hope) to bind the accused over for trial. The defendant has the option of waiving the hearing to enter a plea. Often, that is followed by a plea deal with the prosecution.
What it is
Pretrial hearings come in many forms and are used for many purposes, according to the American Bar Association.
Some judges have these hearings, which happen in a courtroom and are documented by a court stenographer or on video, to manage the case. A trial date may be set and a schedule for any pretrial activities can be established at the hearing. Another name for it may be a status hearing or early hearing.
Often times, in a pretrial hearing for a criminal case, a not-guilty plea has been entered, hence the need for a trial date. There is no witness testimony, nor are any exhibits entered into evidence.
Depending on what jurisdiction the pretrial hearing is held in and what kind of trial-civil or criminal-it is, other important matters are dealt with. A scheduling order could be issued, which outlines the rules for trial as well as deadlines. Each side in a trial is entitled to a list of witnesses and exhibits, and dates for the list submission are set.
If the trial is a jury trial, the judge will also outline jury selection. In some states, each side has an opportunity to submit jury instructions, and at a pretrial hearing, the judge can set deadlines for when they must be submitted.
In cases such as those involving child custody, if there is a disagreement between the two parties, the judge may use the pretrial hearing to refer the case to a third party. The third party could be a mediator who tries to work out a custody agreement between the two parties.
In civil cases, the case could be referred to arbitration or mediation.
There are cases where the judge will use a pretrial hearing to encourage settlement. This most often happens in civil, child custody or divorce cases.
Another form of pretrial hearing is an issue hearing. Here, the lawyers attempt to agree on undisputed testimony or evidence. In court lingo this is called a stipulation.
From trial preparation to a potential settlement or plea deal, the main point of pretrial hearings is to keep the judicial system moving forward for both sides.