Jury Box

Four Tips for Drafting Jury Instructions: A Tightrope Walk between Clarity and Accuracy

          What’s the best way for attorneys to show appreciation for jurors during the North Carolina Judicial Branch’s Jury Appreciation month? Lavishing them with gifts is prohibited, but one way attorneys can show some appreciation is by drafting jury instructions that make the lives of jurors easier by streamlining the deliberation process.

 

          When it comes to cases with complex statutory language, lawyers may be faced with the task of drafting jury instructions and must learn to bridge the gap between legal jargon and natural language. To add to the pressure of crafting meticulously worded jury instructions, many appeals are based on confusing or inaccurate jury instructions. The most important goal is to avoid confusing the jury while accurately conveying the applicable state’s law on each claim or defense. Finding the most accurate, yet accessible, words can be a challenge, but it is worth the effort to avoid a costly appeal.

 

          Jury instructions are a framework around which a jury discusses a case. Once jurors begin deliberations, the main way to keep the jury on track is to provide point-by-point instructions to a jury that help them decide each claim or defense at issue. Without them, the deliberations could turn into a free-for-all in which jurors only think about which side they want to win a case rather than the particular legal merits of each side’s argument.

 

          The first step is to determine whether there are any state standard, or pattern, instructions that are on point. If there are, read them very carefully to determine if there is any word of phrase that may cause confusion to a jury. The North Carolina School of Government provides free PDF versions of the instructions found here.

 

          If there are no pattern instructions that are on point, or if the facts of the case are such that the pattern instructions do not adequately address a claim or defense, lawyers may draft their own special instructions. These instructions are based on applicable statutes, case law, and legal dictionaries.

 

TIP 1: When crafting the instructions, especially if there are cross-claims or counterclaims, use the plaintiffs and defendants names. For example, “is Jack Pott entitled to recover damages from DeePockets, Inc. for his lost wages?” reads a bit clearer than “is the Plaintiff entitled to recover damages from Defendant for his lost wages?” Naming the parties makes it easier on jurors.

 

TIP 2: Pay very close attention to word choice. Take, for example, a case over a dispute about a trade fixture. The jury instructions include two definitions:

 

“A fixture is personal property that is attached to land or a building and is regarded as an irremovable part of the property.”

“A fixture is, formally, an article which was personal chattel, but which, by being physically annexed to a building or land, became accessory to it and part and parcel of it.”

 

          The first is included to be more accessible to the jury. The latter is included in order to use the proper terminology. It’s not that jurors are incapable of wrapping their minds around the concepts of “chattel” or something being “annexed,” but “personal property attached to a building” is much easier to digest. It means the same thing, but taking the mental gymnastics out of the equation decreases the chances of confusing a jury.

 

          In fact, any time you are using a term of art, like “estoppel” or “specific performance”, it is wise to rephrase it in terms a lay person will understand. The same applies to legal Latin words or phrases. The clerk at the corner store knows what “bona fine” and “status quo” mean, but when it comes to terms like “scienter” (knowledge) or “de bonis asportatis” (carrying goods away)”, it is essential to provide a plain English definition.

 

TIP 3:  Before you finish drafting the instructions, go back to the statutes and/or case law on which the instructions are based. Is every part of the statute included in the instruction? Is there some point of law included in the instruction that is not present in the statute? Inadequately or inaccurately stating the law could lead to a costly appeal, so it is worth taking the time to double-check.

 

TIP 4: Once the instructions are drafted, find a non-lawyer to read through them. If your spouse or favorite barista finds them confusing, at least some jurors probably will as well. Ask them for feedback: what is it, specifically, that is confusing? Is it the meaning of a particular word or phrase? Is it the whole concept of the legal claim? Is there too much legalese? Once you’ve determined the source of the confusion and corrected it, make sure the instruction is still legally accurate and that you’re not omitting part of the law on which it is based.

 

          Finally, as any litigator or lover of courtroom dramas can attest, there is no way to guarantee a jury will follow the instructions to the letter, but it is much more likely they will do so if they understand them clearly and aren’t forced to guess what the instructions mean by a particular word or phrase. It is impossible to control what occurs in the deliberation room, but lawyers can control the phrasing of special instructions which may help them avoid an appeal due to juror confusion or an error in the instructions.

 

 

 

          Lindley Law is a civil litigation law firm that handles a variety of business law, construction law, and trust and estate litigation. To learn more about our firm, lawyers, and practice areas, please visit us at www.lindleylawoffice.com.

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