Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Do jurors understand judges?

A recent study has claimed that there is a problem with jurors understanding judges. The BBC reports the story here. An excerpt:

"[. . .] -thirds of jurors in criminal trials do not fully understand a judge's legal directions, a study of juries suggests.

Some jurors were tempted to search online to find out more about the case they were hearing, the two-year study for the Ministry of Justice said.

However, it concluded that the system in England and Wales was fair and free of racial prejudice. [. . .]

[. . .] The research team asked some jurors at Winchester Crown Court, in Hampshire, to recall two specific and key questions that the judge had given in a case where a defendant had been charged with violence but claimed self-defence.

Almost 70% said the judge's direction had been easy to understand but only 31% of them then correctly recalled the two legal questions on his right to defend himself. A fifth did not recall either of the key issues.

The report said: "The proportion of jurors who fully understood the legal questions rose when they were handed a written summary of the judge's direction - but was still only 48% of all those surveyed."

Study author Professor Cheryl Thomas said the findings did not necessarily mean juries were returning unjust verdicts because they often translated legal language into words they more readily understood. [. . .]."

Of course, judges instruct the jury on matters of law, but the jury determines matters of fact in addition to rendering verdicts. It will be interesting to see how this develops. My best guess is that there may be a greater push -- as noted in this piece -- for wider use of written directions from judges in future.

For those interested in my past work in defence of the jury trial, please see this.

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