Dateline: September, 2021, Issue 3

How well are instructions on circumstantial evidence understood by jurors?

Jurors regularly are instructed about circumstantial evidence using pattern jury instructions that many states have rewritten so as to make legal concepts more comprehensible to people without a legal background.

Boginskaya (2020) explored how well jurors comprehend simplified pattern jury instructions about circumstantial evidence. Two California pattern jury instructions, one being circumstantial evidence, were audio recorded. The audio recording was played twice to each of 44 native English-speaking undergraduate and postgraduate students who had never before served on a jury. Each research participant was asked to paraphrase separately each of the jury instructions. Explanatory strategies also were employed to clarify the meaning of the instructions to determine if comprehension of the instructions could be improved.

Participants were able to remember and paraphrase less than half of the material they had heard, and no participant was able accurately to paraphrase all the segments of the instructions.

Only 24% of the participants correctly described circumstantial evidence as indirect evidence, with the remaining 76% variously describing it as circumstance-dependent (19%), less reliable evidence (18%), detailed information (17%), weak evidence (14%) and hearsay (8%).

Participants reported their greatest difficulties in understanding the instruction were an unfamiliarity with the legal concept, its abstract nature, and to a lesser extent, the complicated syntactic characteristics of legalese. When unfamiliar terms were replaced with common words and the concept was exemplified, comprehensibility of the instruction improved by 47%.

The legal concept of circumstantial evidence is not well understood by college-educated potential jurors hearing simplified pattern jury instructions. When provided examples of the concept and unfamiliar words are replaced with common words, comprehension of the legal concept of circumstantial evidence improves, although still remains only moderately understood.

Source Boginskaya, O. (2020). The simplification of jury instructions: Legal-lay interactions in jury trials. ESP Today [Journal of English for Specific Purposes at Tertiary Level], 8(2), pp.297-318.