Page last updated at 10:47 GMT, Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Jurors struggle to understand judges, says major study

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

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
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.

Either we, as a nation, are sliding down the scale of basic intelligence or the legal system is employing terminology that is unintelligible to most people
Andrew, Birkenhead

Lord Justice Thomas, deputy head of criminal justice, welcomed the report and said senior judges were working on how to better present legal directions.

"The Judicial Studies Board now recommends that written directions be given to juries in all but the most simple of cases and will consider, in detail, the recommendations made in the report.

"It must always be remembered that juries considering their verdict can ask the judge for clarification of any aspect of the case."

Judge Keith Cutler, who is based in Winchester, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he welcomed the research and said it showed the jury system was "fair, effective and efficient".

Jurors should be trusted to reach "fair and proper balanced conclusions", he added.

The study also examined the media's impact on juries and found that while in most cases stories faded from memory, some jurors in high-profile trials struggled to put them out of their mind.

It said a small proportion of jurors admitted to having gone online to find out more about their case, sometimes out of a misguided attempt to do a better job.

Bob Satchwell, the head of the Society of Editors, said the media had "no interest" in damaging a fair trial because ultimately they wanted to bring terrorists and murderers to jail.

But he said while traditional media was "very careful" about what it reported, the same rules did not apply to other parts of the internet, such as bloggers.

In other findings, the report concludes that all-white juries do not discriminate against ethnic minority defendants - and that more than half of juries convict in rape cases.

Jury graph

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