Legal English: “Mistrial”

A “mistrial” (Pronunication: MISS-try-uhl; Origin: English) is declared by a judge when an error has occurred or a circumstance exists that renders continuation of the trial in a just manner impossible. A mistrial terminates the proceedings and nullifies them so that they cannot be of any legal effect. The most common reason for declaring a mistrial is a “hung jury,” which is a jury that cannot reach the sufficient number of votes to render a decision.

Here are some example sentences that use the word:

  • “In light of this jury’s inability to agree unanimously on a verdict, I must declare a mistrial. These proceedings are at an end.”
  • “Your Honor, please issue an appropriate Allen Charge to the jury. All parties have spent a great deal of time and money on this case, and it is our hope that it can be concluded meaningfully. A mistrial could set us back years.”
  • “The case was declared a mistrial. It was discovered that defendant’s counsel was in a romantic relationship with the judge, and therefore all of the judge’s decisions in the case were called into question. There was no alternative available.”

As stated above, a mistrial must be declared when a just trial is no longer possible due to either:

  1. A highly prejudicial error that cannot be remedied with a jury instruction;
  2. Another circumstance which creates a fatal flaw in the continuation of the trial, such that further proceedings would be wasteful, if not futile.

According to certain case law, the power to declare a mistrial should be “exercised with great care” and used “only in cases of absolute necessity.” (Salvatore v. State of Florida, 366 So. 2d 745 (Fla. 1978), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 885 (1979).)

In the context of a civil case, the following are specific examples of situations that can lead to a mistrial:

  • A hung jury;
  • The death of a lawyer, judge or juror;
  • Jury misconduct;
  • Improper activity in the creation of the jury;
  • Court misconduct leading to unfair jury bias that cannot be remedied.

While mistrials are rare in corporate litigation, they can still occur. In those situations, judges typically order that a new trial be commenced at a future date.

For additional legal english terms and definitions, visit our Legal English category page. Washington University School of Law also offers a legal english course, for those who would like to take their learning further.