The term “mistrial” is one that most of adults have probably at least heard in passing, but what is it, what gives rise to it, and what are the consequences of a mistrial? Hopefully most of us will not have to consider these questions (because we’re not directly involved in the court system), but for those of us who might, here is a brief primer on the term to get you started.
In essence a mistrial is a trial that is not completed. Instead the trial is stopped and declared invalid before a judge or jury renders a verdict. A mistrial can occur for a number of reasons, including that a jury cannot to reach a consensus verdict or a party commits a serious procedural error or engages in misconduct that makes the trial unfair. Mistrials can also be declared due to misconduct on the part of an attorney or even a juror the unavailability of a key participant in the trial due to illness, injury, or death, or for other reasons. Importantly, a mistrial has no legal effect on the litigants. This can be an especially useful point to understand in the context of a criminal trial, where a mistrial is not an acquittal of a criminal defendant.
The most common result of a mistrial is that the trial must be conducted anew, most often with a different jury. As one might imagine, a do-over is typically disfavored by the court and the parties because of the substantial time, resources and effort that are required to take a case to trial in the first instance. Having to re-do a trial from scratch is also disfavored under the law for these reasons. However, fundamental notions of fairness to all parties in court ultimately trumps any distaste for declaring a mistrial, and sometimes there is simply no other alternative to ensure one’s day in court.