Bad Jury Instructions are an Enemy of Justice

Most people are not lawyers. Most people in America don't have even have a bachelor's degree. As laypeople, their exposure to complex legal concepts is minimal at best. This is no fault of theirs, it is simply a statistical fact.

Many laypeople without college degrees will be called for jury duty. If chosen to sit on a jury, they could spend weeks or even months listening as attorneys and witnesses present competing stories about what happened that caused a dispute between them. After the closing arguments are heard, the jurors retire to the deliberation room to decide who wins.

Let's say we have a group of twelve jurors, only four of whom have ever been to college and none who have been to law school. They have been listening to a trial about a business deal gone bad. One party was trying to sell some property and the other was trying to buy it. Both parties say they entered into an agreement, but they don't agree on what the terms of that agreement really were. There were some written documents exchanged but nothing that is clearly a formal written contract.

So the first problem the jurors have to solve is whether there was really a contract at all. So they sit down in the deliberation room and are given a stack of papers with instructions on them. The very first thing they read is this:

A contract is a promise or set of promises for the breach of which the law gives a remedy or the performance of which the law in some way recognizes a duty. To be binding, a contract must include a manifestation of mutual assent to the terms and conditions of the contract. This is referred to as the “meeting of the minds.” There must be a meeting of the minds; there can be no contract if only one party intends to be bound.

What does this paragraph mean? I went to law school, took two semesters of contract law, and I still had to read this paragraph twice to make sure I fully understood it. For anyone who never went to college, let alone law school, no number of readings is enough to fully get what it is trying to say.

The above paragraph is from a jury instruction template for breach of contract cases. This is actually what lawyers and judges recommend jurors see when they deliberate in a trial. And it gets worse:

Because intent, including intent to be bound, is seldom susceptible to direct proof as it relates to a person’s state of mind, the law presumes that a person intends the natural and probable consequences of that person’s acts. The meeting of the minds or the mutual manifestation of intent may be made wholly or partly by written or spoken words or by other acts or conduct, and an internal or unexpressed intention not to be bound is ineffective.

Got it? Now, the directive:

In determining whether there was any contract, you must decide whether or not there was a meeting of the minds between the parties with respect to the terms of the alleged oral agreement and a present intention to be bound.

Easy, right?

If you've never taken a class on contracts in law school, you can read this paragraph a dozen times and still not be totally sure what you're supposed to do. And even if you do get it, you probably have a bunch of fellow jurors who don't, and won't no matter how much you try to explain it to them. Again, that's not their fault, considering the instruction they've been given.

The law is complex, nuanced, and takes years of training to grasp its basic concepts. And you can't even get accepted to receive that training unless you were a pretty good student in college. For everybody else, it's mind-numbing and rightfully so.

The fact that attorneys and judges regularly submit and approve jury instructions like this can only be explained by tradition and laziness. No attorney who truly wants a jury to rule in their favor should submit instructions that are so dense and complicated that they're more at home in a law school textbook than in the hands of twelve non-lawyers who must fairly resolve a dispute.

Better instructions are possible. As a quick exercise, I'll re-write the first paragraph in a way that breaks down each of the concepts in an easier-to-digest way:

A contract is a promise or a set of promises. For example, Allen promises to give a car to Mary, and in exchange, Mary promises to give money to Allen.
Once two parties have entered a contract by making promises to each other, the law recognizes that each has a duty to the other. They are bound to not break their promises.
Breaking a promise is called a breach of contract. The law provides a remedy when one person breaks their promise.
But for the contract to be binding on each party - for there to be a duty not to break a promise - there has to be a "meeting of the minds."
Both parties must intend to enter into the contract and to be bound by it. There is no contract if one person intends to hold the other to their promise without being held to their own promise in return.
For example, if Allen never intends to give the car to Mary, there is no contract between them. Mary is not bound to her promise to give Allen money.

Now, that's wordier, but hopefully easier to digest for somebody who has had no previous legal training. From the lawyer's perspective, even if your case is weak, it is far better to have a jury who knows exactly the questions they're supposed to answer than a jury totally bewildered. It decreases the risk of appeal and it keeps the judge from having to make awkward, complicated remedial rulings that simply delay the process even longer.

Better jury instructions are possible. As our country continues to struggle to fully educate all of its citizens, making complicated legal standards easy for laypeople to digest makes just outcomes more likely.