Learn about the court trial process

Find out how the trial process works in the Massachusetts Court System.

Table of Contents


The Massachusetts court system resembles a pyramid. Cases start in 1 of the 7 trial court departments (Superior Court, District Court, Boston Municipal Court, Housing Court, Juvenile Court, Land Court, and Probate and Family Court), and are first decided there. The court that has subject matter and geographic jurisdiction over the issues and parties involved is where the case is started.

Cases are generally described as criminal or civil. Criminal cases are started by the government, and involve an accusation that an individual ( the defendant) has violated a state statute that enforces public behavior codes. The government is represented by the Attorney General or a District Attorney (the prosecutor). At a criminal trial, the government must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. This well-known standard was first described by Massachusetts Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw in Commonwealth v. Webster, 5 Cush. 386, 59 Mass. 295 (1850) in 1850.  

In a civil case, an ordinary person ( the plaintiff) may begin a civil complaint presenting a legal complaint against other people, entities like corporations, and even the government (all known as the defendant), if they can't settle a dispute or believe that some legal right has been violated. In civil actions, the parties develop their cases through discovery, requesting information, and deposing (questioning) potential witnesses.    

In trial courts, decisions are made by the fact-finder (which will be either a judge or jury) after testimony by witnesses and arguments by lawyers, or by the parties themselves, if they aren't represented by a lawyer. Physical evidence, such as photographs, a weapon, or relevant documents, may also be entered as evidence.

After reviewing all the evidence and considering the arguments on both sides, the fact-finder (jury or judge) reaches a verdict, which usually ends the proceedings at the trial court.

After a verdict or judgment, the appellate process begins. However, there is no appellate process if a defendant who was charged with a crime is acquitted. The Double Jeopardy clause of the Massachusetts Constitution prevents the government from appealing an acquittal.

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Last updated: July 9, 2019

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