Best Practices: Jury Instructions

On Behalf of | Jun 2, 2016 | Civil Justice System

**This post was written by guest author and MRB attorney Richard Riley**

How the jury is instructed on the law greatly impacts its decision.  Many defense practitioners urge the trial judge to adopt a stack of jury charges drafted with subtle phraseology favoring their client; some plaintiff practitioners do this too. Because the Alabama Pattern Jury Instructions (“APJI”) have been honed to near perfection over the past four decades, practitioners seeking objectivity and accuracy have at least five good reasons to urge their judges to use the APJI predominantly and party-drafted charges sparingly.

1.  Accuracy.  Case law tells us an incorrect charge may be the basis for the granting of a new trial. But we know the APJI “represent a scholarly effort on the part of a group of experienced and dedicated judges and lawyers” to “reduce the number of appeals grounded on alleged erroneous instructions”. Wren v Blackburn, 304 So.2d 187, 193 (Ala. 1974).

2. Clarity.  Case law tells us that instructions that are potentially confusing, misleading, or incomplete require a new trial.  Since 2004, the APJI Committee has converted the APJI to plain language instructions that “not only..use words..that can be understood by most jurors, but frame[d] a way that will help tell the jury how to return a legal verdict based upon its findings.” Hanes, 68 Ala. Law. at 375.

3. Fairness.  Unlike many party-submitted charges, the APJI “are not weighted for either party and contain a simple, direct and impartial statement of the law”. Wren, 304 So.2d at 194. This is reflected in the fact that the APJI Committee is composed of appellate and trial judges, and practicing attorneys from both sides of the bar.

4.  Efficiency.  According to the Wren decision, the APJI was specifically designed to “enable busy trial judges to prepare and deliver [charges] in less time and with greater accuracy and thus allow them to devote more attention to other important aspects of trials”.  Wren, 204 So.2d at 193.

5.  Brevity.  Jurors (like all of us) have short attention spans and are eager to deliberate.  Even if repetitive charges are even-handed, they lengthen the trial and detract the jury from its mission.  The APJI cover nearly every aspect of most civil actions.  Thus, the need to use a party-drafted charge is rare.

These five reasons should be sufficient to encourage any circuit judge seemingly inclined to wade through a party-drafted stack of charges to reconsider.  it is suggested that the practitioner have a short brief with these points ready to counteract such a stack if it appears.

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