Jury instructions are instructions for jury deliberation that are written by the judge and given to the jury. At trial, jury deliberation occurs after evidence is presented and closing arguments are made. Jury instructions are the only guidance the jury should receive when deliberating and are meant to keep the jury on track regarding the basic procedure of the deliberation and the substance of the law on which their decision is based. Attorneys will propose instructions to the judge at the end of trial, often seeking specific phrasing that is advantageous to their client. However, the judge makes the final decision about content and phrasing. Jury instructions should ideally be brief, concise, nonrepetitive, relevant to the case’s details, understandable to the average juror, and should correctly state the law without misleading the jury or inviting unnecessary speculation.
An attorney who opposes the jury instruction as being irrelevant, incorrect, or misleading must be careful to properly preserve their objection for appeal. A judge who notices a flaw in the jury instructions after they are issued must immediately correct the instructions sua sponte. If a judge corrects the instructions, the jurors should also be instructed to forget the previous instructions when deliberating. Historically, most successful appeals were the result of overlooked errors in jury instructions – often these errors were verbose instructions that confused jurors. For an appeal to be successful, the jury instructions have to be read as a whole and found to contain errors that were not harmless, but rather which ultimately made for an unfair trial.
Appeals due to errors in jury instruction have been greatly reduced by the implementation of model, standard, or pattern instructions for specific jurisdictions. These are civil or criminal jury instructions approved by a state court, bench committee, or bar association. They are commonly used by courts in the relevant jurisdiction, as they ease the process of drafting fair jury instructions and theoretically do not have errors. Model, standard, and pattern instructions are not binding, so a trial court may modify them as necessary to fit the circumstances of the case. A court will often reject parties’ proposed jury instructions if there are model instructions available on the topic, in an effort to avoid bias or manipulation.
[Last updated in June of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]