What Are We Doing Here? an Analysis of Juror Orientation Programs

Article excerpt

Although the role of the jury has diminished over time in common law countries, it remains a central feature of the criminal justice system, particularly in serious cases. But the role of the jury is not limited to countries with a common law heritage. The use of lay decision makers is a feature of many legal systems, and is being increasingly utilized around the world.1 At the same time, greater willingness by governments and the courts to allow access to juries has facilitated jury research.

Of particular interest to researchers has been the ability of jurors to perform their task. While those brought up in a common law tradition may take the idea of a jury for granted, it is, in many respects, an extraordinary proposition. Members of the public are selected, at random and with no prior training, to sit in judgement in our most serious cases, applying principles of law, the understanding of which learned counsel and judges have spent many years perfecting. Jurors perform this task by sitting and listening to material presented over days, weeks, or months, in an environment that is completely foreign to them. It may therefore be anticipated that jury duty poses a daunting prospect for many potential jurors with little prior understanding of the law, legal terms, and court procedures.

One way that courts attempt to assist jurors is to orient them by providing information prior to trial regarding the role of the jury and jurors' obligations. This is a juror's first human contact with the system, and the time at which they are likely to be most overwhelmed by their surroundings. Impressions formed, and knowledge gained, at this stage are likely to impact on their perception of the process as a whole, and their ability to perform their tasks. Yet, while there is a plethora of research on juror com- prehension and decision making,2 the literature on juror orientation is virtu- ally nonexistent. 3 This article addresses this gap in the research, at least in part, by analyzing juror orientation materials in seven Australian jurisdictions.4

The first step was to determine what materials should be covered in juror orientation materials. A list was compiled of all items covered in each jurisdiction. This provided an indication, based on practice, of those items considered to be important for juror orientation across a range of jurisdictions. Given the dearth of juror orientation literature, it was necessary to look to other orientation methods that have been better researched, and which are based on similar principles, to form a second frame of reference for our analysis. The comparison chosen was workforce orientations that provide the most similar context in which orientations are conducted.

A content analysis was then performed to examine how comprehensively these issues were addressed in each jurisdiction. The next step was to conduct a readability analysis to determine whether the orientation material could be understood by a broad cross-section of the community. Finally, we considered modes of presentation to determine whether the orientation process adopted optimal methods of multi-modal presentations with repetition of key points.

Although based on practices in Australian courts, these findings are of relevance to other jurisdictions, including the United States. There are many similarities between jury practice in Australia and the United States, and most of the issues raised in the orientation process in Australia are likely to be equally applicable in the U.S. Of course, diere are some significant differences that will require modification. The arraignment process, in particular, is considerably more involved in the United States than Australia. Communication with jurors in the United States is considerably more liberal, while Australian jurors play no part in the sentencing process. These are matters of specific content that are easily adapted to particular jurisdictions. Of more general application, this research provides some preliminary analyses of what makes for a successful orientation program in terms of motivation and comprehension; factors that are relevant in any context. …