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Legal Research & Writing

Drafting Straight-Forward Jury Instructions

A paralegal's guide to using simple, clear language to improve your jurors' comprehension.

By Celia C. Elwell, RP

(Originally appeared in print as "Above All, Use Plain English")

 

One of the goals of jury instructions is to improve each juror’s comprehension. Certainly you want each juror to understand exactly what each instruction means. If the juror doesn’t understand the instruction, the outcome of the case might as well be decided by spinning a bottle.

Remember, as a paralegal you are writing for someone who is unfamiliar with legal phrases and terms of art. First and foremost, eliminate legalese from the instruction. Words such as "said," "hereinafter" and "aforementioned" have no place here. This is no time to cling to stuffy words or phrases.

The rules used for all good legal writing apply. Use the active voice. Use short words, short phrases, and short paragraphs. Make it as straightforward and logical as you can. Your goal is to be brief, but clear.

Uniform or pattern jury instructions are often taken directly from the language of a statute or appellate opinion. Because this is so, it can be difficult for a layperson — your juror — to follow the instruction’s meaning. The paralegal job is to tailor each instruction to the facts of the case, and to edit the instruction so it is written in clear and concise language. It’s critical each juror has a crystal clear understanding of each instruction.

Be wary when using form, or boilerplate, instructions. Pay particular attention to detail, and edit carefully. Always proofread each instruction carefully. Failure to do so makes you and your firm appear sloppy and unprofessional.

Here is an example of what I mean. See how many examples of bad writing you can find.

 

Should you find in your deliberations for negligence on the part of the parent of the Plaintiff [name], said negligence cannot be charged or held against aforementioned child to prevent, reduce, or otherwise subtract recovery for said child for the said injury the child named above may have sustained as a result and consequence of the combined negligence, if any, of the Defendant [name] and said parent.

 

Take a moment to re-write this horrible paragraph. Many unnecessary words can be deleted, as well as legalese. Also, this example ignores the "rule of short." This paragraph, a single sentence, is six lines long and 67 words. Here is one possible solution.

 

If you find negligence was committed by the parent of Plaintiff [name], negligence cannot be charged to Plaintiff to prevent or reduce recovery for any injury Plaintiff may have suffered as result of the combined negligence of Defendant [name] and Plaintiff’s parent.

 

Now the instruction is only four lines long and 42 words. By deleting the legalese and other unnecessary words, the instruction is clearer and easier to read and understand.

I live by the maxim of "whatever can be misunderstood, will be." To avoid this calamity, you must write jury instructions that are easily understood during the first reading by someone who has no legal background or knowledge. Crafting well-written jury instructions encompasses knowledge of the law, the court rules, and excellent writing habits.

A complete overview on drafting jury instructions can be found in the Real Solutions section of Legal Assistant Today’s January/February 2002 issue titled "Panel of Peers" on Page 33.

 


 

Celia C. Elwell, RP, has been a paralegal since 1984. Elwell served as an advisory board member and an adjunct instructor for the University of Oklahoma’s paralegal program from 1986 to 2001. She is the co-author of Practical Legal Writing for Legal Assistants (West 1996), and of the PACE study manual published by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). Elwell is also a member of the Kansas Paralegal Association and NFPA.

 

 

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