Bifurcation (law)

In law, bifurcation is a judge's ability to divide a trial into two parts so as to render a judgment on a set of legal issues without looking at all aspects. Frequently, civil cases are bifurcated into separate liability and damages proceedings. Criminal trials are also often bifurcated into guilt and sentencing phases, particularly in capital cases.

Bifurcation Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure

Under the American Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 42(b) allows the court to decide issues contained in a single "suit" in separate "trials". Bifurcation does not affect the party structure of the suit itself, but merely allows multiple trials inside of one suit. Conversely, the court may allow combination, which permits two separate suits to be joined together in a single trial. This is done through Rule 42(a).

Bifurcation is distinctly different than severance, which under Rule 21 creates separate "suits". The practical distinction is that severance results in separate judgments, whereas bifurcation yields a single judgment.

For example: A judge may accept bifurcation in a divorce case where the issues of custody and property division are bifurcated. This way they can both be discussed at the same time but separately.

In Federal Court judges have wide discretion to structure trials. Factors evaluated will include congruence of issues, complexity for the jury, and possible prejudice to any of the parties.

Bifurcation under state procedure

State procedures differ widely.

In some states, a defendant who has raised the defense of mental disease or defect will automatically create a bifurcated trial. In the first stage of the trial, both sides present evidence and testimony designed to establish that the defendant is either guilty or not guilty. If the defendant is guilty, the issue of mental disease is presented.


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