Juror understanding of judicial instructions in criminal trials

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Release Date: 10.30AM, 29 October 2008

A survey by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research of more than 1,200 jurors in criminal trials has found significant differences of opinion as to the meaning of the phrase 'beyond reasonable doubt'.

Around half (55.4%) of the jurors surveyed by the Bureau believed that the phrase 'beyond reasonable doubt' means 'sure [that] the person is guilty'; 22.9 per cent believed that the phrase means 'almost sure' the person is guilty; 11.6 per cent believed that it means 'very likely' the person is guilty; and 10.1 per cent believed it means 'pretty likely' the person is guilty.

The vast majority of jurors (94.9%) surveyed, however, said they understand all or most of judge's instructions on the law. The vast majority (85.3%) also said they understand either 'everything' or 'nearly everything' that the judge said during the summing-up of the trial evidence.

When asked whether the judge's summing-up of the trial evidence was 'far too long', 'too long', 'about the right length' or 'too short', 81.7 per cent of jurors said 'about the right length'. When asked whether in his/her summing-up of evidence, the judge generally used words that were easy or hard to understand, 97.1 per cent of jurors said 'easy to understand'.

The summing-up of evidence by the judge appears to be more helpful to jurors than the closing addresses given by defence and prosecution. More than two-thirds of jurors (67.2% surveyed said the judge's summing-up helped 'a lot' or 'quite a bit'. The proportions reporting that the closing addresses by prosecution and defence counsel helped 'a lot' or 'quite a bit' were much lower (55.6% and 50.7%, respectively).

The Bureau found that the judge's summing-up of evidence was less helpful in sexual assault trials than in other types of trial. Jurors who heard trials dealing with adult/child sexual offences were 1.4 times more likely than jurors who heard trials dealing with offences other than sexual offences to say that the judge's summing-up of the evidence did not help the jury 'at all' in reaching a verdict or only helped 'a little bit'.

Similarly, jurors who heard trials dealing with adult/child sexual offences were 1.2 times more likely than jurors who heard trials dealing with non-sexual offences to say that the crown prosecutor's closing address did not help the jury 'at all' in reaching a verdict or only helped 'a little bit'.

Some groups in the community appear to be less likely to understand judicial instructions than others.

Jurors aged between 18 and 34 years were 1.3 times more likely than jurors aged 35 - 54 years and 1.5 times more likely than jurors aged 55 years or more to say that the judge's summing-up did not help the jury 'at all' in reaching a verdict or only helped 'a little bit'.

Jurors whose first language was not English were almost twice as likely as those whose first language was English to say that they understood only 'a little' or did not understand anything that the judge said in the instructions on the law.

Commenting on the findings, the director of the Bureau, Dr Don Weatherburn, said that, generally speaking, they provide reassuring evidence of the effectiveness of the jury system.

"It is occasionally suggested that jurors do not understand what is going on in criminal trials. This study indicates that the overwhelming majority of jurors have little or no problem understanding judicial instructions on the law or the judge's summing-up of evidence at the end of the trial".

"This said, there is clearly one area where reform of the law is badly needed. That area concerns the phrase 'beyond reasonable doubt'. Appeal courts have traditionally argued that there is no need to clarify the meaning of this phrase 'beyond reasonable doubt' because everyone understands its meaning. This is plainly wrong. Jurors would benefit from some clear instruction on its meaning".

Further enquiries: Dr Don Weatherburn. Ph. 9231-9190, 0419-494-408.