Hoping to make jury instructions in criminal cases more user-friendly, the Judicial Council of California is rewriting them to replace legal jargon with common, recognizable phrases, reports the Los Angeles Times. The council, the policymaking arm of the California courts, approved new “plain language” instructions for civil cases last year. Those for criminal matters are expected to be approved next year.
The terms are complicated enough to bewilder even the most devoted “Law & Order” fan: malice aforethought, gross negligence, mitigating factors. Jurors must decipher such terms to decide guilt or innocence, or whether a defendant should receive the death penalty. Confusion can lead to disputes and deadlocks, misunderstandings and mistrials. Because jurors’ educations and language skills vary, judges say, the instructions must be understandable to everybody. They also have to be simple enough to keep jurors’ attention. The task of rewriting has fallen to a group mostly composed of lawyers, jurists and professors, who are researching the law to determine the best way to explain it to jurors – without convoluted language and double negatives. The project began eight years ago.