Jurors struggle to understand judges, says major study
By Dominic Casciani
A juror speaks about what is involved in the courtroom process
Two-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.
Researchers spent two years analysing 68,000 verdicts, questioning jurors and staging simulated trials.
The simulated trials took place at three Crown Courts - Blackfriars in London, Winchester and Nottingham - and included asking whether jurors fully understood the legal directions that are given by a judge to help them understand exactly how a defendant could have committed an offence.
Clive Coleman, BBC legal affairs analyst
Currently judges will only give written directions to the jury in the most serious criminal cases, and even then it is not absolutely compulsory for them to do so.
In the light of the report, it is very likely written directions will be given in all crown court cases.
It seems to be an obvious and common sense solution to the difficulty faced by jurors in the jury room trying to recall legal language and formulations that may have been given to them very clearly, but orally, and some hours or days before.
Written directions in all crown court cases will mean more work for judges.
Current practice in serious cases is for the judge to provide prosecution and defence counsel with a draft of their directions on the law.
Counsel will make observations, which helps ensure directions are agreed and correct, and avoids argument on the law at a later stage.
The research team asked some jurors at Winchester 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 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.
"When jurors are only instructed orally by the judge about the law that they have to apply, they are much less likely to be able to recall the specific language that the judge used," she said.
"We need to really focus on giving the jury the best tools to do that job and if that means using written legal instructions alongside oral instructions, then this is something that needs to be seriously considered."
In November 2008, the Lord Chief Justice suggested that a younger internet-savvy generation was more comfortable reading than listening, raising questions about how to best ensure verdicts could be reached.
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